Built to Spill, who are good at many things, seem to be better at nothing than their ability to layer. And by that I don't mean producing some studio-phonic deluge as indigestible as a fiesta dip. Nope, what I'm talking about is the tasteful use of various instrumental sounds that have slightly different patterns, but which also harmonize. Built to Spill can be complex without getting as nebulous and remote as prog rock; can use contrasts in hush and roar without Led Zep bombast (i.e., switch on, switch off); and can allow grand lyrical themes to coalesce from small-scale, creepy components. This sort of craftsmanship is all too rare in this, the 10,000th day of the power chord and the adolescent rant. Not that there's anything wrong with dumb, simple rock, but when guitars ape bass, bass apes vocals, and vocals ape drums, the whole sound is so perfectly plumb and horizontal that you might as well be enjoying a drive in Iowa. At least Built to Spill gives us some scenery.
All of which is well-demonstrated in Perfect From Now On's opening track, "Randy Described Eternity." (Bear with me. I'm going to indulge in that least interesting of critical habits: breaking it down for you. It heightens the impression that this is some sort of science.) The song begins with a simple arpeggio, soon underscored with complementary bass and second guitar, and with quiet drums. The primary guitar fades out, but comes back now and then with minor variations and single notes. A third guitar arrives, distorted and pulsing, and the music builds for the vocals. The lyrics first suggest stoner sci-fi:
Every thousand years
This metal sphere
Ten times the size of Jupiter floats just a few
yards past the earth
You climb on your roof
And take a swipe at it
With a single feather, hit it once every
'Til you've worn it down
To the size of a pea.
But the indulgence is revealed as the first half of a conversation: "Yeah, I say, that's a long time/ But it's only half a league/ In the place you're gonna be." (I think it's "league"; for all his inventiveness, and his lyrical preoccupation with the word "sound," BTS vocalist Doug Martsch tends to mumble.) No verse, no chorus -- just a microdrama rich in subtext.
If Perfect has any major flaw, it's only that the wealth of material wears you out after only four tracks (out of eight), and none of it rocks terribly hard. You start to yearn for simplicity and noise -- for power chords and bad poetry. But then again, there's no rule that says you have to listen to an album all the way through in one sitting, like I just did. Excuse me while I catch up on Veruca Salt.
-- Michael Batty
Sourmash: A Louisville Compilation
Compilations that go out of their way to try to define a regional scene always suffer from the same damn problem: The compilers forget to use editorial discretion. In their attempt to overcome inferiority complexes by showing a big-hearted civic inclusivity, or a "stunning" array of local diversity, or how many pals they've got in various aesthetically unrelated sub-scenes, they release an album that pogos from punk to swing to Vangelis and back. But it can't do a scene, rural or no, any good to look like a spastic, headless chicken.
Outside the very rocking and recently reissued Squirrel Bait and the fragile gloom of the Palace Brothers, most of us are probably not familiar with any Louisville "scene." Sourmash may or may not shed some light. Though the album has seven or eight songs that are neither good nor aesthetically related to the rest -- songs that shouldn't be included on this, or any other, CD -- there are 10 or so that could be clumped loosely together under the speculative genre of "retardo roots music." This genre hoists the primitive above all else, whether it's a shivering drunk blues song (King Kong's "Foggy Night Blues"), a Link Wray J.D. drag-strip stomp (Bodeco's "Wicked, Mean and Evil"), a scrawny, toothless backwoods bluegrass ditty (Palace Brothers' "Little Blue Eyes") a dissonant, plunking semisolo cafe folk ballad (Retsin's "Duck Out") or a pill-poppin', toe-tappin' country shuffle (Driftin' Luke's "The Tempest"). A lack of wanker two-handed fretwork here, a total absence of slick multitrack recording technology; just out-of-tune instruments recorded at various levels in basements by musicians with quite a bit more vision than precision.
And I confess I enjoy Sourmash's "Louisville" aesthetic -- its tottering, delicate incompetence. I also like the fact that it's played by folks with crazy hillbilly names like Wolf Knapp, Chukka Geisler, Byron Hoagland, Rankin Mapother, and Wink O'Bannon. In fact, O'Bannons (including Wink, Michael, and Tari) play on nearly every decent track on this CD -- a CD, I might add, produced by a certain Matthew O'Bannon, which may or may not be Wink's Christian name. Hmm ... is there a scene in them thar hills, or is the O'Bannon clan just pushing their editorial discretion?
-- Curtis Bonney
In the liner notes to Finally Over, the independent release from SOMA district regulars the Mo'fessionals, you'll find the statement, "The Mofo's turn it out baby," crowded between the thank yous and production acknowledgments. It's an announcement that's part boast, part promise, part dare, as in "I dare ya to say different." But the thing that really takes some getting used to, if you generally prefer the big acts that play the city over the indie band scene, is the Mo's' stable of original material -- a tuneful, pop-friendly collection of acid jazz/hip-hop/funk/R&B experiments -- and their approach to live performance, which shows that if the band doesn't feel good, the audience isn't going to feel good. Call it playing with heart, or partying on stage, but what ever you do, don't call it Memorex, unless you have to. Finally Over is the second recording by the band if you count the Live at Slim's disc from a few seasons ago. Finally Over is the band's first real attempt to recreate its onstage sound in the studio.
A 10-track disc, Over is generally successful musically. Rhythm section members Loring Jones on drums, Jeff Young on keyboards, and John Wilson on bass attack album arrangements like a trio of F-14 fighters. But these guys aren't trying to be Top Guns. There's no room for one-upmanship when you've got three vocalists and a rapper (Zoe Ellis, Teal Collins, Michael Marshall, and Chris Burger) trading 12-bar counts just above the melody. Adding to the attack is expert work from guitarist Erik Smyth who, like Young, wears the double hat of melody maker and rhythm king. Ellis and Collins, whose ranges begin in alto and extend way into soprano, make it easy for numbers like "Never Lie" and "Baby Boy," to invoke the vocal traditions of a broad cross-section of soul singers. Aretha Franklin, Mavis Staples, Tina Turner -- they're all in there.
And on other tunes like "Whatever You Got," "Romantic," and "2 Bad," where Marshall's wail takes center stage, the band flirts with bubble-gum ditties about love and longing. Which only confounds the presence of Burger's normally engrossing rap flow. On "Romantic," for instance, the Alphabet Soup moonlighter rhymes "'Cause I can be your black prince lurking in your bedroom/ You need some help with the head room/ I'll discover things you never knew you had/ I'll show you sights you've never seen/ You showed you was a queen." What could be more awkward? (R. Kelly performing "I Like Your Smile.") But getting too caught up in the finer details of Finally Over just isn't worth it. It's a portable party, not the secret to saving the planet.
-- Victor Haseman
The Latin Side of John Coltrane
Trombonist Conrad Herwig's tribute to John Coltrane, the legendary tenor and soprano saxophonist, arrives with several alluring aspects. For one, there are no tenor or soprano players; thus no one is cast in the impossible role of replicating Trane's licks. Also, Herwig's premise harks back to a underrated aspect of Trane's discography: Ole, a 1961 date with Eric Dolphy, among others, that hinted at Trane's interest in African and Afro-Caribbean themes. Lastly, the album's Latin orientation is a refreshing change of pace from the rigid replications that comprise most recent attempts at jazz repertory. In fact, this recording, as well as Don Byron's fine Bug Music (which re-examines the work of John Kirby and Raymond Scott, and Duke Ellington's early pieces), has turned the repertory on its head. With these approaches, you hear an artist find his voice within the canon rather than lose it.
The benefits of the new approach are immediately evident with the "Blessing" that begins the recording. It returns jazz to a spiritual place that the current sterile approach of most young jazzmen seems to deny. The trombone is the main extroverted instrument in Latin jazz, holding a place comparable to the tenor saxophone in jazz lore, so it's appropriate to hear Herwig, a regular sideman in Eddie Palmieri's Latin jazz bands, take full command of the music. His band follows his lead ripping into Coltrane classics like "Blue Train," "India," and "Africa." Appropriately, the best tune is Mongo Santamaria's "Afro Blue," a staple of the Coltrane repertoire. Four percussionists (including master drummer Milton Cardona) lend fire and energy to the proceedings. The only disappointment in the recording is that most of this effort only translates classic jazz to a more open, adventurous context. It's a change in convention, but not a new one altogether. Perhaps that advance will have to wait until Herwig's next effort. For now, this represents an important step forward for jazz, though not a Giant Step.
-- Martin Johnson