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MUSIC REVIEW: January CDs

CDS WE LOVE...in which we cozy up to and share music that has struck our eardrums.
(The streams below will be available until early February, when a new batch will appear.)

Givers: GIVERS

(Valcour, 2009)

What do “Strawberry Letter 23” by Shuggie Otis, “Crazy Love, Vol. II” by Paul Simon, and “Ceiling of Plankton” by Givers have in common? Besides transcendent harmonies and the creative use of xylophones, their inexhaustible playability.

The best and worst thing that can be said about music is that it is (just) feel-good dance music. It’s true—the Givers have nothing to offer the leaden-footed, unimaginative, or staid. For the rest, take a listen, but be aware—dangerously catchy stuff here.

The Givers’ five-track debut EP has been so well received that the band has been taken aboard tour by the indie-darlings Dirty Projectors. Despite becoming an overnight sensation, the band’s street cred is backed by their mature song-craft, one that fuses crystalline melodies with Afro-beat rhythms and strobe-like layers of electro-pop. While the emotional range of these songs extends somewhere from cheery to blissed out, they are hardly one-dimensional, as heard in the band’s deft maneuvering between indie-rock’s hushed tones and the pulsating bombast of disco. The only thing this EP lacks is more songs

Hear this! "Ceiling of Plankton" by Givers


For more information, please visit Valcour's website

—BS


Waylon Jennings: FOLK COUNTRY/WAYLON SINGS OL’ HARLAN

(Collector’s Choice Music, 2009)

You can always decipher the musical era of a country album by the musician’s coif on the cover. There’s a big difference between crew-cut George and side-burns Jones. Willie Nelson’s close-cropped do, if anybody can remember that far back, represents Nelson’s nascent songwriting genius on Music Row. This two-in-one reissue of FOLK COUNTRY and WAYLON SINGS OL’ HARLAN, with its cover’s prominent display of Waylon Jennings’s pompadour, contains the diverse catalog of Waylon’s early years. Because Waylon, along with Willie, was a pioneer of the hard-edged, Texas-outlaw brand of country, his mid-’60s work for Chet Atkins on RCA often gets overlooked. Still trying to tamp down a sound, young Waylon was less of an icon and more of a vocal stylist, and experimented with his repertoire, recording ballads alongside honky-tonk shuffles; traditional Cajun songs alongside Bob Dylan tunes. At this point, Jennings had already perfected his signature vibrato-tinged baritone, and these classic numbers—“Stop the World (and Let Me off),” “I’m a Man of Constant Sorrow,” “Heartaches by the Numbers”—are transformed by Waylon’s debonair take on them.

Hear this! "Stop the World and Let Me Off" by Waylon Jennings


For more information, please visit the Collectors' Choice website

—BS


Various: DR. BOOGIE PRESENTS HEAVY JELLY

(Sub Rosa, 2009)

If you want to find reissues of singles that never hit the Billboard charts, best go to the authorities on American music—the Europeans. Think Ace Records and Bear Family. The latest release from Sub Rosa, DR. BOOGIE PRESENTS HEAVY JELLY, is no exception to the rule. Belgian musicologist and DJ Dr. Boogie serves up an impressive collection of rare-and-lost, organ-jazz dance instrumentals from the ’50s and ’60s. As swinging as the genre’s best, Bill Doggett’s “Honky Tonk” and Booker T & the MGs’ “Green Onions,” the twenty-one B-side rarities on HEAVY JELLY are altogether new and yet seemingly familiar. While nearly all of the songs fit within the description of soul-jazz, which combines gritty rhythm & blues with West-coast cool, there is an astonishing amount of musical variety within this niche. In “Backslop,” Baby Earl & the Trinidads pump out a ’50s-era ska sound with a persistent upbeat and dancey horn-riffs. “Red Pepper Part II,” a gritty, soul stomper by Roosevelt Fountain, could easily be taken for an unreleased Stax recording. The Noc-A-Bouts’ “Jungle Safari” is lounge-exotica at its best, with its infernal rhythms and sexy howls. “Hush Puppy” by Gene and the Hat combines surf-guitar twang with New Orleans r&b strides. This collection is just too hip for words.

Hear this! "Backslop" by Baby Earl & the Trinidads


For more information, please visit Sub Rosa's website

—BS


Various: GASTONIA GALLOP: COTTON MILL SONGS AND HILLBILLY BLUES

(Old Hat, 2009)

There are many regional varieties of the blues, but few have become respective subgenres like Delta blues, Texas blues, Chicago blues, and Piedmont blues. GASTONIA GALLOP takes a close look at the Carolina Piedmont, the namesake of the distinctive ragtime style of country-blues. Another thing the Piedmont area was known for was its textile industry. Gastonia was not only the biggest producer of raw cotton in the country, but it was also the site of a historic labor strike in 1929. This collection of old-time music from Depression-era Gastonia County includes labor songs, drinking songs, ballads, and comic rags that reveal early stylistic and thematic developments within this unique tradition of Southern folk music. These songs have the sound of the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers from the Bristol sessions, coupled with the ire and humor of Woody Guthrie’s ax-grinding “Dust Bowl Ballads.”

Hear this! "A Change in Business All Around" by The Carolina Twins


For more information, please visit Old Hat's website

—BS


Neon Indian: PSYCHIC CHASMS

(Lefse Records, 2009)

Texas-raised Alan Palomo has two creative identities. Last spring, he came on the scene as VEGA, a producer of glittery, Euro-inspired disco-pop. Then in late 2009, his second coming appeared as the grittier alter-project Neon Indian. The ’80s-homage synth-pop flair exists in both incarnations, but if VEGA is the gum-smacking, blue-eyeshadowed club-kid-sister, then Neon Indian is the sober, superficially existential older brother.
 
The first half of the album flutters bemusedly with young adulthood: Tracks like “Deadbeat Summer” and “Should Have Taken Acid With You” play like lazy love letters to that inaugural summer after high school: a thousand pool parties, endless friends, and nights sprawled on damp lawns, gazing up at the stars. But the naïveté gets sucked out with the abstract “Mind, Drips” that features Palomo’s penchant for grainy, “no-fi” synth landscapes, the deliberately tinny sound of playing vinyl at too low of a volume.
 
The title track in particular smacks of an ’80s-flick crisis scene: think Andrew McCarthy’s character in LESS THAN ZERO—the one guy finally disenchanted with all of the mindless fun being had around him, glowering alone on the balcony. In short, PSYCHIC CHASMS is the soundtrack for the dawn breaking after the party, hopeful but without innocence, and unmercifully exposed.

Hear this! "Local Joke" by Neon Indian


For more information, please visit Lefse Records' website 

—NE


Royal Bangs: LET IT BEEP

(Audio Eagle, 2009)

From a region of Tennessee known primarily for “Rocky Top” and Dolly Parton, Knoxville’s Royal Bangs create smart, synth-supplemented power-pop—proof that interesting stuff is still happening in college towns, even in the SEC. Their scope is wide: Tracks range from drum-machine hyperbole and fuzzy, blown-out guitars like “My Car Is Haunted” and the dissonant vocal effects on “Brainbow,” showing their ADHD-inclined twenty-first-century tech-obsession, while somehow preserving careful melodic intuition. Then in perfect contrast, the tiny pop ballad “B&E” arrives deftly understated and lyrically accessible, followed by “Shit Xmas,” a tune excitably epic and propelled by affable, chunky chord progressions.
    
“1993” is a canny love song to a Clinton-era childhood, with adoring references to ’90s TV shows, an acknowledgement not only of the band’s age, but of the bewilderment of young adulthood in the early aughts—where bygone pop culture merits poetic lament, and as examples like the ROYAL BANGS prove, the younger torch-bearers want pop music to be legit and critically self-aware.

Hear this! "Waking Up Weird" by Royal Bangs


For more information, please visit Audio Eagle's website

—NE


The Browns: THE BROWNS: A COUNTRY MUSIC ODYSSEY

(Bear Family, 2009)

The close harmonies of a sibling musical act like The Browns can bring an almost familial soul-comfort to the listener. Hand-picked by sister-member (and OA Music Issue featured artist) Maxine, the tunes on this Bear Family anthology capture the warmth of the music created by the brother and two sisters (Jim Ed, Bonnie, and Maxine) from Pine Bluff, Arkansas. The disc is accompanied by a seventy-eight-page booklet chronicling the story of The Browns, whose years in the music business are brought to life through rare color photos and detailed liner notes. Let the music of The Browns—a balmy breeze of country-pop and folk—waft out of your stereo, and see if it doesn’t make you feel good.

Hear this! "They Call the Wind Maria" by The Browns


For more information, please visit Bear Family's website

—NE


Photo credit for spotlight image on our home page: Elvis Presley and the Browns at the Trio Club in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, December 15, 1956. The Trio Club was Elvis's favorite hangout in the early days; he loved Momma's cooking. Courtesy of the Pine Bluff Commercial. Photograph by Bruce Clegg. From Maxine Brown's memoir, Looking Back to See: A Country Music Memoir, published by the University of Arkansas Press. For more info about the book, which is highly recommended, please click here.

 

 

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