Reviews of recent releases by Luna, Handsome Boy Modeling School, Eric Clapton, John Lennon, Neko Case, The Verve, comedian Patton Oswalt, "Philadelphia Roots Volume Two" and local musicians Josh Small and Brain Jones with Martin McCavitt.
Wareham's low-key delivery so suits his limited vocal range and disjointed, even nonsensical, lyrics that guitarist Sean Eden apes it on "Broken Chair" and "Still at Home." Nevertheless, those part-falsetto numbers and the upbeat "Astronaut," "Buffalo Boots" and "Star-Spangled Man" (easily worth your iTunes bucks) lend texture to what might otherwise be a monochromatic outing.
Bryce Goggin's (Lemonheads, Phish, Pavement) nuanced production places shimmering guitarwork at the fore, never allowing reverb to mask the notes. Drummer Lee Wall fills the empty space with cymbals and shaker, prodding band-mates through concise compositions but not outrocking them. Upon closer listen, Luna's sonorous soup proves carefully crafted and the sexy diffidence approachable. ***1/2 Nathan Lott
Handsome Boy Modeling School "White People" (Atlantic)
Looking for a CD that features members of Wu-Tang (RZA), Hall & Oates (John Oates), and the Deftones (Chino Moreno)? It's safe to say this is your only option. Ditto if you're searching for audio skits with Tim Meadows, Father Guido Sarducci and Jay-Z. It's a testament to the knob-twisting skills of producers Prince Paul (De La Soul, Gravediggaz) and Dan the Automator (Kool Keith, Cornershop, Gorillaz) that such far-ranging artists are willing to lend voice to their hip-hop collages.
This follow-up to the duo's 1999 release, predicated upon samples from the sitcom "Get a Life," picks up where its predecessor left off, blurring genres with a heavy backbeat and smarmy humor. Scratches (most by Kid Koala) lace the record, but this time guitar riffs top the mix. "Rock and Roll (Could Never Hip Hop Like This) Part 2" opens with the musings of old-school pioneers and closes with a display of Q-Bert's turntable wizardry, but the intervening five minutes sound a bit like Paul and Dan shopping their production talents to rap-metal bands.
Contributions by Handsome Boy alums De La Soul and Del tha Funky Homosapien meet but don't exceed expectations, while Del protégé Casual delivers a deft rap on "It's Like That." Hit-maker Pharrell Williams plays social critic on the eerie R&B number "Class System." Tracks worth downloading: "Breakdown," the Sublime-like offering from Hawaiian folk/hip-hop fusioneer Jack Johnson, and "I've Been Thinking," femme-rocker Cat Power's down-tempo reincarnation as a hip-hop femme fatale. **** N.L.
Eric Clapton "Sessions for Robert J." (Reprise Records)
When Eric Clapton released "From the Cradle" a decade ago, he toured the country and at each concert proclaimed that he would play "nothing but the blues." Apparently, he wasn't joking. A follow-up to last year's "Me and Mr. Johnson," the latest "Sessions for Robert J." is yet another tribute to the blues legend. As an interpreter of the blues, specifically the legendary Robert Johnson, Clapton is in his element.
Lacking in pretense, this is an album that easily stands on its own in the blues-rock arena. On tracks like "Terraplane Blues" and "Kind Hearted Woman Blues," Clapton truly captures the raw and soul-searching undercurrent without sounding forced or contrived.
Working with a band of accomplished musicians like guitarist Doyle Bramhall II and organist/session man Billy Preston (he once played with the Beatles among countless others), to name a few, Clapton covers Johnson's music from the perspective of a blues purist first and a fan second.
"Sessions for Robert J." is really a companion audio/video piece to "Me and Mr. Johnson," but it also provides interesting insight into Johnson's work as well as into what inspires Clapton's own music. The DVD showcases 19 acoustic tracks and features behind-the-scenes footage. It follows Clapton and his band on the road as they record solos in hotel rooms and studios and in the Dallas warehouse studios where Johnson himself recorded. As a document of musical influence as well as an intro to the blues via a rock-'n'-roll legend, "Sessions for Robert J." is a unique accomplishment. **** Shannon O'Neill
John Lennon "Rock N Roll" (Capitol)
John Lennon "Acoustic" (Capitol)
The never-ending stream of Beatles products continues with two John Lennon discs released in time for the holidays. "Rock N Roll" is a previously released album now remixed and remastered with a few bonus tracks tacked on. "Acoustic" is a new collection with seven previously unreleased tracks. First things first: Neither collection has any Beatles songs. "Rock N Roll" doesn't even have any Lennon songs it's a collection of early rock songs penned by Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Buddy Holly, Little Richard and others. Recorded in 1973-74, "Rock N Roll" features a jacked-up Lennon belting out numbers with a soulful but often a bit strident urgency and plenty of horns for a big sound. The most successful numbers are when Lennon takes it down a notch, such as on Holly's "Peggy Sue," or when the emotion really comes through, such as on "Stand by Me." All in all, with some weak arrangements and Lennon's performance a bit over-the-top, this is not essential fare. The bonus tracks will satisfy the true collectors but are not must-haves for the average fan.
"Acoustic," on the other hand, is almost all Lennon. An intimate portrait, many of these are solo pieces, with Lennon singing quietly but forcefully, accompanying himself on a spare acoustic guitar. A couple of cuts ("My Mummy's Dead") are of throwaway quality, just snippets really, and other cuts seem works in progress. But there are also powerful versions of some of Lennon's best solo work. "Working Class Hero" is an excellent performance, and "Cold Turkey" is positively harrowing in Lennon's depiction of someone going through heroin withdrawal. "Imagine" is included with a live version that satisfies but doesn't excite, and overall, that's the effect of the whole record. "Rock N Roll" **1/2 "Acoustic" *** Andy Garrigue
Various Artists "Philadelphia Roots Volume Two: The Sound of Philadelphia Funk, Soul and the Roots of Disco: 1965-73" (Soul Jazz)
"Philly Soul" was shorthand for a distinctive and inventive brand of music that thrived on a tension of opposites: Tight and tough rhythms were wedded to soaring orchestrations and silky vocals, suggesting both rawness and dapper sophistication. This collection highlights a key period in the scene's evolution, as the smoothness edged to the fore and eventually led the mid-'70s explosion of disco.
Most of these tracks were hits only regionally, but their influence is such that the music sounds instantly familiar. The Delfonics' "Ready or Not" is an inventive pocket symphony with anxious stabs of violin and a foreboding horn bridge. Funky instrumentals like The Philadelphia Society's "100 South of Broadway" and The Family's cover of Sly Stone's "Family Affair" are lost party classics, paving the way for full-band disco jams by the likes of the Trammps (another Philly band, members of which played on many of these tracks) and KC and the Sunshine Band. Twenty tracks here and not a single dud. ***** Mark Richardson
Neko Case "The Tigers Have Spoken" (Anti-)
From the twang noir warning of "If You Knew" to the misled heartbreak of "Favorite" to the exiled darkness of "Blacklisted," Neko Case travels a grim landscape on her new 11-song live release. And with a powerful voice that can be as assertive as Reba, as downright scary as Grace Slick in the heyday of the Jefferson Airplane, and as pitch perfect in its wronged-woman approach as Loretta Lynn, this Virginia native has a bright future.
Recording in club dates with various ensembles, Case trots out several new originals and a diverse range of covers, from Buffy Sainte-Marie to the Shangri-Las to Loretta Lynn herself, packing these cuts with, respectively, sweet innocence, rocking abandon and snarling venom. That she can do all this believably and switch easily from '50s-style classic country to furious, almost punk-infused passion suggests she's much more than just a helluva voice. **** Andrew Garrigue
Neko Case performs at Starr Hill in Charlottesville Feb. 16. Go to www.starrhill.com for info.
Portsmouth native Patton Oswalt is among the new school of politically incorrect comedians jolting audiences with a rough-edged mix of realism and black "cringe" comedy.
This debut features a fitfully hilarious performance from Athens, Ga., where Oswalt waxes cynical about topics from U.S. imperialism ("America, the Retarded Trust Fund Kid") to '80s hair-metal videos, all while unleashing rapid-fire bursts of uniquely twisted imagery. For instance, his breathless shout-out to dying in the Bush apocalypse: "Fing volcanoes spewed menstrual blood into the sky and it formed into Avril Lavigne's face and she recited the 'Good Will Hunting' screenplay and the words turned into sentient razors that bored into your flesh, and George Bush was president, and mediocrity held sway! Where my 'pockies at?"
There is some forgettable juvenile material, and Oswalt is clearly best when not lingering on easy targets. He's no Bill Hicks, but this album provides enough nose-spewing moments to warrant repeated listening. *** Brent Baldwin
The Verve "This Is Music: The Singles '92-'98" (Virgin)
To have lived through the mid-'90s Brit- pop music explosion is to have loved The Verve. Led by singer/songwriter Richard Ashcroft, the insightful lyrics and bombastic sounds spoke to and of an entire generation, and it was quickly crowned one of the greatest British bands, alongside Oasis, Blur and The Stone Roses. From the well-publicized struggle with the Rolling Stones over the rights to its most commercial song "Bittersweet Symphony" to the tour de force of 1997's "Urban Hymns," this is a band that has weathered music's ups and downs. The Verve's latest and greatest collection complete with previously unreleased tracks and singles from its three albums and early EPs is a reminder of the great songs the group produced and of a not-so-distant era in music when rock 'n' roll was very much alive. **** Shannon O'Neill
Brian Jones, Martin McCavitt "Honey Comb" (Slang Sanctuary)
Former Agents of Good Roots drummer Brian Jones is a one-man movement, gathering a collection of the area's most interesting musicians into a kaleidoscopic series of projects. "Honey Comb" reunites him with pianist/electronic composer Martin McCavitt in a series of challenging duets combining driving and delicate rhythms with free-floating asymmetrical melodies.
McCavitt plays "prepared piano," meaning that various bits of buzzing, damping and otherwise sound-altering bits have been added to the instrument's innards.
The result is more abstract than Jones' double quintet, piano trio or his Boots of Leather band (dedicated to the music of the Velvet Underground). Like a lot of modern art music, it occasionally demands more attention than it easily sustains. At times the playing has the timeless alien charm of Balinese gamelan music. Available only at www.slangsancutary.com or at one of Jones' frequent local performances, it's a slightly exotic sonic vacation. ***1/2 Peter McElhinney
Josh Small "Josh Small" (Popfaction)
"It takes a month to write a song, sometimes longer" muses Richmond's Josh Small on his eponymous debut, which by his own math represents a year's work. The 11 tracks on this bare-bones recording feature only occasional harmonies and intermittent layering of Small's banjo, mandolin and steel guitar. Nevertheless, the tone is clear and the mix level (except for the obtrusive found sound on "Look at Me"). It's easy to imagine these unvarnished songs at an open mic.
"Rock Island Line" is a nod to his obvious Piedmont blues influence, while the opener, "Pushing Boulders," hints at bluegrass. But Small is more modern singer-songwriter than traditionalist folkie. His percussive banjo work drives some catchy vocal tunes ("Fall Motherfers Fall"). That knack for melody recalls Vic Chesnutt, as do Small's literate lyrics and apparent antagonism toward religion. Lest his allusions to Thomas Pynchon and the Apostle Paul come off as highbrow, however, Small peppers them with obscenity and ire.
Much of his verbiage is delivered in a tortured wail reminiscent of Nebraskan Ted Stevens in his pre-Cursive role with Lullaby for the Working Class (particularly "Setting Up"). And though convincingly melancholic, the introspective Small risks redundancy, given the record's constraints. Wisely, he's limited most tracks to a punchy three minutes. In all, the album shows promise and may earn Small a shot at a more polished follow-up in a year's time. **1/2 N.L.
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