While some folks might consider Bryan Ferry’s biggest blunder of 2007 to be his ill-stated comment about how much he admired Hitler’s influence on fashion, I prefer that to this collection of Bob Dylan songs, surprisingly not recorded for Starbucks.
Comments about Hitler’s coats might also miss the point, but at least they don’t last an hour. Ferry, long known to baby boomers as a stylish and once purposeful man, tackles some of Dylan’s less obscure songs with the same finesse that a Bahamian hotel lounge singer might while slightly buzzed on Bartles & Jaymes.
The backing band, led by the expected British never-weres likely to show up at the next Live Earth concert (Paul Carrack, Chris Spedding, Robin Trower), speeds through most of the material as if eager to finish the session by lunch time.
Finally, before Brian Eno fans get excited about his “electronics” on “If Not for You,” let me save you the trouble of continuing that feeling. —Peter Berkowitz
Take A Look Around
Down By Law
Now this is what I’m talking about! The great Cold Chillin’ label rises again as the first record company to treat classic hip hop with the same respect given to rock albums. These are incredible two-disc sets, re-mastered with nearly 30-page booklets, and whose second discs collect all of the 12-inch mixes, remixes and instrumentals.
Both of these are classic albums. MC Shan, the original King of Queens, is the originator of the immortal “The Bridge,” included here with dub and a cappella mixes. The 1986 release was arguably the first nationally known hip-hop battle, leading KRS-One and his Boogie Down Productions’ massive “The Bridge Is Over.” Beautiful, also, that 21 years later, Cold Chillin’s chief producer, the legendary Marley Marl, was able to come together with KRS for their joint Hip Hop Lives LP.
Last but not least is Master Ace and his sole Cold Chillin’ release, 1990’s Take A Look Around. Also entirely produced by Marley Marl, this, unlike Down by Law, is an unheralded classic and to these ears may even slightly edge out the mighty MC Shan with cuts like “Music Man,” “Movin On,” “I Got Ta” and a dozen others. Run and get these. It’s about time. —Damien McPherson
Light Rides the Super Major
Up the Empire
When I first heard Up the Empire, I thought that if I died and got to go to a celestial dream concert where Wolf Parade and the Thermals headlined, I might want Up the Empire to open.
When they do it well, Up the Empire manage to lay the distorted, jangling guitars of Hutch Harris & Co. over Spencer Krug’s asymmetrical, unconventional arrangements, creating a sound that may disorient but does not displease. Tracks on the album’s front half, particularly “Volcano” and “This Machine Blows Minds!!!,” stand out in this regard. In retrospect, however, these first few tracks begin to sound more like warm up material for the real show, which begins around track 5 or 6, and trades in interesting arrangements for faster beats and more guitars. Unfortunately, this also signals a shift toward a more predictable pop-punk sound that only hints at the experimentation that made the opening tracks so enjoyable. It looks like my position for a dream-opening act is still available. —Justin Keenan
The Flying Club Cup
(BA DA BING)
Being named Pitchfork’s No. 1 record of 2006 undoubtedly created pressure for Zach Condon to exceed expectations. But listening to his follow-up to Gulag Orkestar, the stress that usually comes during sophomore year is nowhere in sight.
Condon’s a groover. He builds and orchestrates tantric, gypsy rhythms that shake and rattle their way to your ass as much as your head, while his maudlin voice rolls off operatic, as if he’s narrating an Italian funeral.
The percussion feels more robust this time (bigger recording budget, perhaps), but he’s earned extra cool points for stacking, in Jenga-like fashion, bells, strings, horns and piano into focused compositions. Tracks 4 and 9, in particular, won’t let up. —Mat Herron
Ahh, college music for people who aren’t in college anymore. That’s the best way I can think of to describe Bluefinger. It’s hard to avoid Pixies comparisons, even all these years later, but this is a decent offering that stands on its own.
Frank Black’s return to his alter ego comes on the heels of his inability to reunite the Pixies after their recent reunion tour, and some magical influence by the spirit of Herman Brood (whose song “You Can’t Break a Heart and Have It” is covered on the record.)
The rest of the album consists of Black Francis originals, and songs like “Captain Pasty” and “Your Mouth into Mine” are slightly messy and restless but catchy and fun, while “Angels Come to Comfort You” starts out reminiscent of Lou Reed’s “I Love You, Suzanne,” but ends on an ethereal note with fetching vocals from Black’s wife Violet Clark.
Frank Black’s genius eluded me in the ’90s, but it’s good to have Bluefinger as a glimpse into the past with an eye on the present. —L. Park
Have you ever had the urge to run across a vast field of green and wildflowers, until you ran out of breath and fell down, gloriously exhausted, as the grass enveloped your body and you breathed in the crisp scent of nature around you?
In other words, the debut album by Miracle Fortress is a breath of fresh air. The 12-track release is the brainchild of Montreal’s Graham Van Pelt, who wrote, performed, recorded and mixed the album. It just goes to show what one man can do. Every song is a wall of sound, reminiscent of the “hum” that Smashing Pumpkins once had, though in a softer tone. The arrangements sound as though they’re heard in a dream, with wistful, Beach Boy-like tones, melodies and upbeat rhythms.
The songs, for the most part, blend together with some variation in bass lines and drums. The lyrics, while lovely, are barely audible. But none of this really matters. This album is best swallowed whole anyway. —Mary Q. Burton