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Expert Witness: October 2011

Emperor X/Merle Haggard

Music to Occupy Wall Street By
Tuesday, October 4, 2011  

Emperor X: Western Teleport (Bar/None)
Lapsed science teacher Chad Matheny specialized in electro-noise until he figured out how chords and beats work, enabling him to put together a futuristic folk music in which nerdy melodies rise out of a shambolic clatter that's the best anyone can expect with the power going out all the time. The opening "Erica Western Teleport" and the closing "Erica Western Geiger Counter" celebrate his crush on a rebel hero who scopes corporatist disaster areas where dystopian sci-fi is indistinguishable from democratic-socialist realism. In "Compressor Repair" he wishes he could fix the ecologically incorrect air conditioner of a girl who deserves to be cool. "Allahu Akbar" establishes his material solidarity with the strugglers of Tahrir Square. A MINUS

Merle Haggard: Working in Tennessee (Vanguard)
Now 74 and short half a lung, he's not making the best music of his life, just the best albums. The playing keeps getting savvier, he hasn't lost as much voice as God intended, his homegrown anarchism is feistier than ever, and with help from his fifth wife he's still writing keepers. Not even the anti-Nashville "Too Much Boogie Woogie" feels like filler. Try a title track that crests with "Well the water came in, the water went out/Saw the Hall of Fame floatin' about," or the equally insouciant "Laugh It Off," or the love songs for seniors "Down on the Houseboat" (they've got money) and "Under the Bridge" (they don't), or a "What I Hate" where he blames the resurgent Civil War on the Rebels. Or if all that sounds too darn modern, start with the three oldies: "Cocaine Blues" on his lonesome, "Jackson" with his fifth wife, and "Working Man Blues" with Shotgun Willie and his own 17-year-old son. Man's learned how to live, and he has no intention of stopping. A MINUS

Our Dreams Are Our Weapons/Plastic People

This Is What Democracy Sounds Like
Friday, October 7, 2011  

Our Dreams Are Our Weapons: From the Kasbah/Tunis to Tahrir Square/Cairo and Back (Network)
At first this bifurcated selection of eight liberation songs from Tunisia and six from Egypt sounds noble and no more. Although the 14 tracks vary considerably, all are on the respectable side except for one Tunisian rap, which was recorded well before the revolt got the rapper imprisoned. But soon the Tunisian sequence hits home: uplifting neotrad opener to songpoem with crowd chatter to haunting rap to marchlike hymn right through a rock anthem that swept all the way to Tahrir Square. Unfortunately, after a Nubian opener the Egyptians' contributions don't connect as deep. The two oud-and-percussion features by two Coptic brothers are too many, and the saved-for-last "The Challenge," by Tunisian oud-and-zither brothers with their own album on this very label, strives a little too solemnly to, as the notes put it, "build a bridge between Orient and Occident." A matter of taste, of course--tragic sacrifices and momentous changes merit some solemnity. But I'd love to hear just one beat from the rappers I know damn well were taking their A game to the Cairo streets. B PLUS

The Plastic People of the Universe: Magical Nights (Munster)
Half of Egon Bondy's Happy Hearts Club Banned, that crucial early salvo in the former Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution, is scattered through these two discs. That one still sounds glorious on its own. But it's no more likely to be reissued separately than Take a Look at Those Cakes. The long-gone live reunion album 1997, so guitar-heavy you can hear it dreaming of arena-rock glory, has only nine of these 31 selections. And although I miss the Leading Horses finale "Osip," this captures the band more persuasively than either of the six post-Bondy albums I've heard. The mood is eerie and sardonic, and the unchronological song order tracks like a Tarantino movie. Unobliged now to penetrate their considerable political significance, which got too Catholic anyway, I'm free to immerse in the bearlike vocals, jazzlike saxophone, unstinting drive, and gloomy harmonic devices of my favorite prog band. Can and Faust are noodling wimps by comparison. A

Eric Church/Dirt Drifters

Hey, Compared to Hank Williams Jr. . . .
Tuesday, October 11, 2011  

Eric Church: Chief (EMI)
I know the idea is that the studly barfly who kicks the album off grows up as it progresses, but that doesn't help me feel the big dog who wants to beat up my buddy in "Keep On," or convince me that the morning-after sex of the last verse isn't a literary lie. Still, grow up he does. Church has always known how to write, and he's blowing here--check how the reworked title of "Homeboy" obliterates one's faint reservations about its moralism, or for that matter how the reworked title of "Keep On" mans up that sex scene. Jack Daniels (apostrophe omitted) and Springsteen (teen-sex soundtrack) are also title-cited, as is Jesus, twice--as a woman he doesn't deserve and a Johnny Cash imitator country music could use. Be nice if this bright, basically decent guy was him. A MINUS

The Dirt Drifters: This Is My Blood (Warner Bros.)
Five red-bloodeds from Greater Nashville--which here encompasses Oklahoma, where the Fleener brothers did what their mechanic dad loved and not what he did, and New Jersey, where Garth Brooks showed Jeff Middleton where he could stick his knack for words--escape the working-class rut they'd be lucky to be grinding down right now with capitalism running amok. The strong songs about labor breaking your back are outnumbered by the sharp ones that prescribe alcohol for the pain. But these dudes know honky-tonk hoo-hah for the doomed escape it is--a real-life option they understand better than they do the women they drink with. Just as well that their protest song--"All the good politicians are dead," "Radio plays the same 10 songs," etc.--is called "I'll Shut Up Now." But they won't and they shouldn't, because whenever they just look around a little they have the skills to tell us what they see. B PLUS

Charlie Parker/James Carter Organ Trio

Virtuosi Get Down
Friday, October 14, 2011  

Charlie Parker: In a Soulful Mood (Music Club '96)
Compiled by UK music journo Roy Carr, this budget take on Parker's Dial sessions is findable cheap used and has become a favorite of mine by the odd strategy of skipping his twistiest heads. Although the two-disc Legendary Dial Masters is now collector-priced, longer Dial collections designated 1 and 2 are buyable as separate items, and the first consists almost entirely of originals that include the omitted "Dexterity," "Bongo Bop," and "Dewey Square" although not "Scrapple From the Apple." Worth owning. But in keeping with a generic title the label employed for many lesser jazz comps, what happens here is different. Midway through, originals give way to standards that begin with an "All the Things You Are" that's as inspired as Parker ever got and damn right soulful. If he'd had the strength of mind, he could have broken pop as the king of the intelligent makeout instrumental without getting near a violin. A

James Carter Organ Trio: At the Crossroads (EmArcy)
This occasional unit's live 2005 Out of Nowhere was a honking session, beefing up the young world-champeen multisaxer with Hamiet Bluiett's bari master class and Blood Ulmer's harmolodic Son House shtick. The most luscious beef on this more contained studio job is provided by guest singer Miche Braden sinking her chops into Fluffy Hunter's playfully filthy "Walking Blues" and a lounge through Muddy Waters's "Ramblin' Blues." The lounge feel is shored up by sometime guitarist Bruce Edwards, who if he ain't Ulmer at least ain't Jim Hall. Gotta admit it's a relief, though, when sometime guitarist Brandon Ross disrupts the long Julius Hemphill-penned closer. Even the organist, who does his job manfully throughout and whose name is Gerard Gibbs, avants around on that one. B PLUS

Jeffrey Lewis/Kimya Dawson

Application Bundles--Hippie Style
Tuesday, October 18, 2011  

Jeffrey Lewis: A Turn in the Dream-Songs (Rough Trade)
So maybe the idea of this oddly constructed album is to "turn" from some OK meditative songs at track five, commencing a run of six A-OK outgoing ones before re"turn"ing to three meditative ones--and then breaking a minute of silence with the gangsta-ripping "Mosquito Mass Murderist"? That's a guideline, anyway. Try "Cult Boyfriend," one of the funnier and more philosophical of the many reflections on romantic frustration this lifetime bohemian's cult career has afforded. Or "When You're by Yourself," one of the sadder and more touching of the many reflections on romantic frustration this lifetime bohemian's cult career has afforded. Or the all-encompassing "Krongu Green Slime," a cartoonist-cum-folkie's six-minute history of consumerism from "the time before land" to "the time after land." It's also about the meaning of life, if there is one. A MINUS

Kimya Dawson: Thunder Thighs (Great Crap Factory)
Too bad Dawson's DIY imprint is above the Deluxe Edition hustle, because tracks 13 to 16 are "bonus" yuck at its most useless. Yuckiest of all is the insipid anarcho-pastoral finale "Utopian Futures," which dreams an ideal world that would in fact lack--among many things I enjoy, such as non-DIY CDs--the library system she celebrates so heartily right before the album's true climax, the inspirational memoir of vanquished dysfunction "Walk Like Thunder." Oh well. She's 37 now, married and a mom, and like most aging hippies can be a crank or a lump--in her case, usually the former. So be glad her gift for whimsy and/or confessional lifts most of what we'll call the "real" album. Highlights include the pregnancy report "All I Could Do," the literary reflection "Miami Advice," and an ecumenically non-utopian protest song called "Same Shit/Complicated"--to which I will merely add that Madison, Wisconsin isn't the only place with some nice cops. B PLUS

Ian Dury and the Blockheads/B-52s

Reasons to Be Cheerful
Friday, October 21, 2011  

Ian Dury and the Blockheads: Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll: The Best of Ian Dury and the Blockheads (Rhino '92)
I'm not claiming I've heard or even twigged all this world-class lyricist's best-of CDs. More than I can catalogue recycle "Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll," "Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick," and a bunch of lesser-known songs that are better than either. But though the mastering could be brighter on this elderly 18-tracker, there are plenty of them around used and its selection is clearly superior to that of the closest competitor I've found, Great American Music's stupidly entitled 2007 The Best of Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll. The only hands-down masterpieces the Rhino lacks from that one are "My Old Man" and the late "Bill Haley's Last Words," and it adds four others, including "You're More Than Fair," which is surely the only great song to include both the word "clitoris" and the word "toilet" and probably the finest to include either. Tender or crass, loud or quiet, loungy or recitative, cheerleader for his world-class idols or adept of local accents I know nothing more about, he was music-hall's great inheritor. Is there a Noel Coward or, I don't know, George Formby collection to compare? One as serious and as funny? I doubt it. A

The B-52s: With the Wild Crowd! (Eagle)
In which Fred Schneider, of all people, proves himself new wave's premier vocal muscleman--a not-quite-swish 59-year-old cartoon powering the resurgent arena-pop of his 34-year-old band in Athens GA's 2500-capacity Classic Center. Kate and Cindy have also been working out since the combo unleashed their best album in 25 years in 2008. Nor is their first in-concert album undercut by the nine tracks it shares with their best-of or the five it shares with their comeback, because it's bigger than either. The still tacky, no longer little dance band always wanted to be vulgar but were too arty to take it all the way. Now they have, and it suits them. As so rarely happens with live recordings, they've never sounded more alive. A MINUS

Deer Tick/Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams

Beyond the Eternal Old-Timey
Tuesday, October 25, 2011  

Deer Tick: Divine Providence (Partisan)
Divided 50-50 fast ones-slow ones, this doesn't rock as unreservedly as the bar-burning "The Bump," "Something to Brag About," and "Let's All Go to the Bar" want you to think. But it's sure the right course correction for guys who've always fetishized the eternal old-timey more than any band from goddamn Providence should. There's release along the lines of "I don't care if you puke in my ride/Let's all go to the bar/Baby just as long as you take your piss outside/Let's all go to the bar." And on drummer Dennis Ryan's "Clownin' Around" there's an equally satisfying release from heroin, the closet, child abuse, or some combination of the three--maybe prison, maybe death, maybe hell. A MINUS

The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams (Egyptian/CMF/Columbia)
Unlike Woody Guthrie, Williams is loved more for his singing than his lyrics, and boy does some of this retrofitted doggerel lack character as entuned and delivered. Hank's granddaughter Holly and Amy's hubby Vince you'd guess, Uncle Merle reciting a farewell sermon probably not. But what you definitely wouldn't figure is Nashville tastemonger Patty Loveless accessing her inner twang or a Dylan named Jakob grabbing an unusually witty lament (OK, maybe he had dibs of some kind). And what you'd only hope is Alan Jackson imparting just the right gravity to the despairing opener--or Jack White two-stepping his find so lustily you know he has an all-Hank cover album on his life list, and that it can't possibly match up. B PLUS

Odds and Ends 001

Country, Sorta
Friday, October 28, 2011  

Ruth Gerson: Deceived (Wrong)
Nine dead women, a stillborn baby girl, a male suicide, and whatever got thrown off the Tallahatchee Bridge ("Knoxville Girl," "Little Sadie") ***

Holly Golightly and the Brokeoffs: No Help Coming (Transdreamer)
Down-and-out from inside out, quasi-Appalachian style ("No Help Coming," "Lord Knows We're Drinking") ***

Jonny Corndawg: Down on the Bikini Line (Nasty Memories)
Filthy and whimsical, a strange combo anywhere, is even stranger in a Brooklyn weirdo who pretends to sing country music--and does, pretty much ("Life of a Bear," "Shaved [Like a Razor]") ***

Amy LaVere: Stranger Me (Archer)
She has a small voice for a roots-targeted gal with too much pride to boop up songs that miss the bull's-eye ("Damn Love Song," "Stranger Me") ***

Rod Picott: Welding Burns (Welding Rod)
Hard labor and its grimy fruits ("Sheetrock Hanger," "Welding Burns") **

Blake Shelton: Red River Blue (Warner Bros.)
Although his big voice bogs down making his songwriters' big emotions sound deep, their jokes he's got the attitude for ("Hey," "Get Some") **

Sallie Ford & the Sound Outside: Dirty Radio (Partisan)
Appalled by robot radio, 10,000 cellphone conversations, and the premature death of Polaroid photography, she hooks up with a stand-up bassist and sings the way she imagines witchy mountain women do--or rather, did ("Thirteen Years Old," "Write Me a Letter") **

Martina McBride: Eleven (Republic Nashville)
Megacorny about the right things, including breast cancer, 17-year-old daughters, and connubial love ("I'm Gonna Love You Through It," "Marry Me") *

MSN Music, October 2011

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