Monthly Archives: October 2013

Sound ‘Round: Ceramic Dog / Clay Harper

DIY careerists

Ceramic Dog – Your Turn (Northern Spy)

marc ribot - your turnMarc Ribot has made a career performing on other people’s songs – Tom Waits, Robert Plant and Alison Kruass to name a few. Though his tenure has lasted decades, he’s remained rather anonymous save the rare die-hard obsessed with keeping tabs on studio musicians. This second album under the Ceramic Dog moniker – a trio including fellow hired hands Shes Smith and Shahzad Ismaily – steps away from the avant-garde mist of his prior solo releases and attempts to embrace traditional musical structure. The instrumentals – one melodic, one prog, one dissonant, one a Dave Brubeck cover and two mere footnotes – range from impressive to underwhelming to throwaways. It’s the other six songs, however, which show off his budding lyricism. His easy-going vocals work well on the playful love ditty which sends up his imperfections, but he’s angsty enough to fend off aging on the opener. He saves his harshest vitriol for the one about copyright pirates who steal food from his table. “Download this music for free / We like it when you do / We don’t have homes or families to feed !”  GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: Masters of the Internet” / “The Kid is Back!” / “Lies My Body Told Me

Clay Harper – Old Airport Road (Terminus)

Clay harper - old airport roadThis ex-Coolies’ first solo effort since 1997 contrasts the hurried punk aggression of his long-defunct cult band with a take-it-as-it-comes demeanor. Unanchored by the conventions of a particular genre, he borrows the pulse of blues, and the groove of soul, and loosens up on an album that rewards patience. As most of these songs stretch beyond five minutes – some close to eight – the hooks are exiguous and do more to compliment the visceral pulse of the music. The only moment not structured around a loose jam is the hushed piano cover of Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful” – wherein a vocally withered Harper croaks his way to the closing bars. Content to rely on jam and let the tunes do as they please, he invites guests like Sandra Hall, Hamid Mojahir, Slim Reed and others to join in on the unregulated festivities. Together they instill life into what would otherwise be an unemotional bore. Here’s hoping Harper learns how to have fun by himself someday. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Beautiful” / “Crazy” / “Old Airport Road”

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Sound ‘Round: Deer Tick / Those Darlins

Wrestling with wrestling. 

Deer Tick – Negativity (Partisan)

deer tick - negativityAs rote as the title may seem, there’s no room for wordplay or irony. Usually content to detail the itinerary of his liquor intake, John J. McCauley is serious about his dourness: which means less humor and more thoughtfulness. Forsaking the crusty debauchery of their previous efforts, I suspect this fifth album becomes their most underrated and least appreciated – a shame given its subtle, if uneven, pop appeal. Adding horns, chimes and a Vanessa Carlton cameo to some of the hookiest songs they’ve yet made, the music’s light touches give a facelift to lyrics that would otherwise be mopey. All the sadness and head-hanging is understandable, however. Bitter breakups are hard and seeing your Congressman father convicted of fraud is even harder. That McCauley avoids the bars he once relished and manages to be insightful without regurgitating too many clichés bodes well for whatever his next move is. Should he return to the suds, I wouldn’t mind. They’ve earned it. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks:The Dream’s in the Ditch” / “Big House” / “Mirror Walls

Those Darlins – Blur the Line (Oh Wow Dang)

BTL Full Cover PicTwo years ago, these neo-rockabilly enthusiasts from Music City boozed up and femmed out on an album of girlish sneering and icky boy bashing. The loss of co-founder Kelly Anderson to other musical ventures – coupled with the addition of Andrea Barrera – however, has evened their gal-to-guy ratio and subdued their boastful binging. But the shift in gender chemistry isn’t what makes this follow-up a tame affair: it’s their disillusionment with incessant touring and a life on the road wrought with diminishing returns. The shit hotels and cheap beer they once reveled in are no longer joyous tokens but trappings of a rock n’ roll purgatory. Bummed on being burned out, the music is moody and contemplative and too often a step too slow. Exhausted, yes. Melodically bankrupt, not quite. While Nikki Kvarnes’ increased presence on the mic is uneventful, brooding and driven by clichés, Jessi Zazu’s frustrated feistiness is worth a few keepers – including the slow-burning opener and the pessimistic one called “Optimist.” At least they’ve kept their sense of humor. GRADE: B+

Key Tracks: Oh God” / “Optimist” / “Western Sky

Sound ‘Round: The Julie Ruin / Mariem Hassan

Battle-tested women. 

The Julie Ruin – Run Fast (TJR)

the julie ruin - run fastThe debut from Kathleen Hanna’s third band resurrects the name of her 1997 one-off solo venture. Retrofitted with an ensemble as sharp as her feminist politics, they find a middle ground between the punk bombast of Bikini Kill and the electronic sugar rush of Le Tigre. At 44, she’s grown from a riot grrrl to a riot wife. Her bratty snarl of a voice is less menacing but remains peppy and pissed. The music staves off complacency with deft use of synths, bongos and Dick Dale guitar runs. According to the auteur, nearly half these songs wrestle with the grim topic of euthanasia. Aside from the obviously titled “Goodnight Goodbye,” the first song to crack four minutes, however, the subject matter appears to wrestle with grrrlhood, female independence and a few songs about her Beastie Boy husband Adam Horovitz. The tunes are rough around the edges but are also playfully brash and deceptively melodic. Who said anything about a midlife crisis? She sounds alive and firmly in control. GRADE: A-

Key Tacks: Run Fast” / “Girls Like Us” / “Oh Come On

Mariem Hassan – El Aaiún Egdat (Nubenegra, 2012)

mariem hassanBorn in the sands of Spanish occupied Morocco to a family of nomads, much of Hassan’s youth and early adulthood was defined by the Western Sahara War – a 15-year conflict between Moroccan imperialists and indigenous Sahrawi tribes. Three of her brothers were lost to bloodshed and Hassan’s tenure as a refugee nurse did little to abate the trauma. She moved to Spain in 2002 and lives in relative tranquility with her family, but her music, an amalgam of desert blues, folk and roots, retains much of her desert influences. Purposefully arid, the percussion is often tribal and sparse, and the instrumentation nimble and hushed. This third album incorporates saxophones which add supple jazz flourishes and compliment her lithe, sultry vocals. At 14 songs with an average run time of five minutes, the whole thing goes too long and my western ears can’t help but grow complacent midway through. Good thing the title doubles as cliff notes. Translating to “El Aaiún on fire,” in reference to the Arab Spring protests, her sympathies lie with freedom, justice and peace. She’s got soul and she’s a soldier. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Arfa” / “Arrabi al Arabe” / Addumua”