Issue January 8, 2008

CD Reviews 1-09-08

Angels of Destruction!
Marah
(YEP ROC)

    Album titles with exclamation points are usually a clear warning sign. But the fearless Philly/Brooklyn boys (now with one girl) are sounding ever more like a steroid-charged update of The Band. That’s partly due to the expansion of Marah to six musicians, including two keyboardists. Many individual tracks here are not just intense in restlessness (always a group hallmark), but also in their tightly executed shifts between daring arrangements. Consider “Jesus in the Temple,” with quasi-holiday season lyrics and a sound midway between The Basement Tapes and the White Album. “Can’t Take It with You” is a slightly slick dream of what The Replacements might have matured into. This set has biblical, spiritual and cultural cross-cutting aplenty — even when “Wilderness” is describing an energy-drink high. Musical ADHD has been both strength and weakness for Marah, and it seems as if they’re now gambling on greatness by completely putting aside the meds. Does it succeed, though? If you can handle soulful near-geeks in creative reverie, the answer’s a clear “Hell, Yeah!” —T.E. Lyons

Footprints: A Collection
IIIrd Tyme Out
(ROUNDER)

With good humor and ears tuned in to both the sacred and profane, IIIrd Tyme Out has quietly become a bluegrass institution. As evidenced by this mini-retrospective, stellar pickin’ and a well-chosen repertoire clearly have had much to do with the group’s success.
Besides a representation of the band’s own Appalachian-flavored originals (“Lovin You Goin’ Blind”), this collection also contains an assortment of tracks borrowed from early rock ’n’ roll (“Only You,” a 1955 hit for the Platters), blues (“Milk Cow Blues,” a number most associated with Robert Johnson), country-gospel (“I Pray My Way Out of Trouble,” penned by Loretta Lynn) and the traditional songbook (“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”).
But most strikingly, this disc illustrates why IIIrd Tyme Out was voted top vocal group for seven years in a row by the International Bluegrass Music Association. The harmonic aspect of their sound is still unmatched in the world of bluegrass, or anywhere else for that matter.
Though most of the cuts featured here have appeared before, Footprints is a nicely condensed run-through of what the band does best. And, as extra incentive to purchase this set, two of the 15 total songs were heretofore unreleased. —Kevin M. Wilson

Made Of Bricks
Kate Nash
(GEFFEN)

Kate Nash and I are the same person, more or less: We’re both 20, living in crappy university-owned apartments and unquestionably neurotic. We’d even look the same in a police line-up. Frankly, there’s no reason I should hate her songs.
Her scattered lyrics speak to the collegiate condition; she’s full of the anxiety and unbridled emotionality that correspond to teetering on the brink of adulthood. Nash’s songs are peopled with characters familiar to me and mine: the embarrassingly drunk boyfriend, the weird little sister, the awkward-but-cute-in-a-nerdy-way guy you meet at the train station. She’s frank and unromantic in how she describes them, and she sings about them in a matter-of-fact way that’s refreshing.
While she’s clearly funny and has a couple of great songs in her repertoire (“Foundations,” “Merry Happy”), Made of Bricks is hardly perfect. The UK single version of “Birds” was beautiful and simple, but on the album, it’s been overproduced and doesn’t come off as interesting or lovely. “We Get On” suffers a similar fate; originally, it was almost like a diary entry, but in the album version, it’s been tinkered with to the point of hilarity. The lyrics and melodies are still compelling, but the studio production overshadows them, and, in some cases, sacrifices the integrity of the songs.
Made of Bricks has the makings of a truly fresh, enjoyable album, but it gets a little lost along the way. Hopefully, her next effort retains her sharp sense of humor and manages to avoid becoming something it is not. —Kirsten Schofield

In Minutes
The Teeth
(NOISE POLLUTION)

In the 1960s, the term “garage band” referred to a gaggle of young men, often American and/or Caucasian, attempting to play that one fairly generic Rock Band sound common in the days when the Beatles were popular but not yet creative. (Sorry, Ferris Bueller, they didn’t write all those blues songs).
Perhaps the phenomenon was most popular in the Midwest, because, gosh golly, there’s just more of them (insert birth control joke here). But where would we be without those mutant strains — exemplified in this example by the Stooges, MC5, Styrenes, Electric Eels, Pagans and Pere Ubu? You know, the guys in high school who were freaks, not geeks.
You’ll feel like they’re smoking in your boys’ room again while injecting The Teeth’s In Minutes, a post-proto-blast of uncomplicated rock ’n’ roll made by guys who don’t sound like they know, yet, what it feels like when you realize your dreams will never come true. —Peter Berkowitz

Roses
Bill McHenry
(SUNNYSIDE)

Jazz at its best is always both old-fashioned and modern, and the saxophonist Bill McHenry is a good example. He plays with unabashed enthusiasm for melody: no mazes of harmony or time signature here; the warm, sweet lines ripely tumble out, dictating the band’s rhythm as they go.
Throughout his gorgeous and uncompromising new record Roses, McHenry threads his melodies as if through a fabric. He’s confident enough to let his bandmates — the insinuative drummer Paul Motian, the venturesome bassist Reid Anderson and especially the brilliant guitarist Ben Monder — shape the songs as they desire.
It’s a welcome contrast to past recordings where McHenry sounds like a player who arrived in the studio to kick some ass with players he didn’t know too well, and then went home. Here, he is gentler, moodier and more a part of the ensemble. In a way, the overall effect is the aural equivalent of how a Gerhard Richter color chart stares you down. Roses was a true delight in the 2007 jazz release field. —Mark Bacon

Push/Pull
Foxhole
(BURNT TOAST VINYL)

As a teen trying to become more cultured, I went to a Wynton Marsalis concert. I’d heard that adults with taste and brains listened to jazz music. Later I would realize that not all jazz is the same, and that Wynton Marsalis is not really much like John Coltrane. I was acting like an adult, but not the type of adult I wanted to be.
At the concert, Marsalis introduced a piece, “This one’s about education.” At that point, I had no choice but to laugh. How could instrumental music be “about” something? Now, I’m twice as old as I was then, and I still don’t understand.
Four of the five pieces here are inspired by the death of a friend. The fifth piece was inspired by the death of Wesley Willis, a man of color who made a lot of well-off white kids laugh because he was mentally ill. Oh, and their music is also inspired by their, uh, religious beliefs. (If you know what I mean). —Peter Berkowitz