It is easy to forget what a gifted artist Joe Henry is simply because of his prowess in the producer’s chair for other people’s projects. In that capacity, he has worked with Bettye LaVette, Solomon Burke, Ani Difranco, Aimee Mann and Elvis Costello, to name a few.
Whenever he exhibits a new collection of carefully crafted tunes, Henry quickly reminds us of his own genius. Like much of his previous work, Civilians offers moving melodies (this time with a little help from Van Dyke Parks) to flesh out seemingly simple character sketches that in reality contain profound symbolic meaning.
The far-reaching arm of war is, as the album title implies, the prevailing theme for reflection here. But overall, Henry’s politics come across in beautifully subtle, complex fashion. This is not a raging tirade against the atrocities of the Bush administration. Moreover, there is hope for liberation and room enough for love on Henry’s exquisite new record.
Let this one seep in. —Kevin M. Wilson
The Last Sucker
After 25 years, Al Jourgensen is pulling the plug on Ministry. Rock ’n’ roll retirements are notoriously short-lived, so it’s unlikely that The Last Sucker is Ministry’s final statement, but if it is, they’re going out with a bang. As if going out with a whimper was ever an option.
Picking up where last year’s Rio Grand Blood left off, Sucker finds Al and crew assailing George W. Bush and his administration. Political protest makes for fine folk singing, but when Jourgensen’s (admittedly simplified) agitprop polemic is fused to Ministry’s trademark industrial metal clamor, well … things get ugly. Nobody does this shit better than Jourgensen, and the album becomes downright oppressive. The mood is only broken during a wholly superfluous version of “Roadhouse Blues” that was apparently tossed in for levity.
The Last Sucker certainly won’t change anyone’s mind about Bush or Cheney — if you don’t despise these characters by now, you never will — but it’s good to hear all the same. —Jay Ditzer
The Olympia Three
The Olympia Three
The Olympia Three’s self-titled CD begins with a juxtaposition of the traditional and the contemporary with “Genuine Ties.” Lead singer/guitarist Phillip Olympia’s un-bluegrass vocals emerge from a mandolin-driven introduction to reveal a fine pop song. The mandolin tangles over an acoustic guitar rhythm that flirts with styles that go outside the bluegrass realm.
“Easy Come, Easy Go” adds banjo, percussion and a synthesizer swell at the end to further throw the listener off of the trail of predictability.
The Olympiads continue to elude classification with a reverent cover of Merle Haggard’s “Silver Wings,” and again with the album closer “All I Need,” a song that falls somewhere between John Frusciante and Flock of Seagulls. For real.
A prevalent sound emerges, though it is not of a particular genre. This trio manages to avoid being a typical neo-bluegrass or alt-country outfit with their variety of musical affections and influences. By no means do they snub tradition.
Fans of folk, pop and singer-songwriters will be able to give this album the attention it rightfully deserves. —William Benton
The Shepherd’s Dog
Iron & Wine
There are liars, damn liars and Sam Beam. For years, this Floridian led us on with spare acoustics and rasp. I called bullshit after Woman King dropped in an electric guitar, thinking there’s gotta be rumbling beneath those strums and hushes. Turns out I was right.
To make The Shepherd’s Dog walk, Beam emptied his bag of tricks onto the floor and fashioned them into a landmark.
Frail it is, yes, but the ex-film prof’s vocal range cannot be overstated. At Dog’s trippy, conga-loving midpoint, “Wolves,” his pipes rappel down a cliff of notes before backing musicians drown you in a pool of rapturous space-funk.
Stylistically, you have juke-joint boogie (“The Devil Never Sleeps”) and twinges of African highlife (“Lovesong of the Buzzard,” “Boy With a Coin”) widening the album’s sonic palette.
Beam’s smart enough to dilute experimentation with simplicity, leaving the record’s softer plotlines (“Resurrection Fern”) to straight rip you in half. —Mat Herron
<color the van>
The last song, “End,” sums up the entirety of Easy Magic, Prints’ debut: 1) “The Dark Crystal” is still a good movie. 2) Wait, I’ve heard all this before. 3) How did I land floating face-up in a lagoon featured on the intro to “Miami Vice” (the TV show, naturally)?
The most poignant melodies and rhythms from the rest of the songs are reprised in the final piece, each looping into the other. It’s the kind of thing you miss at first, only catching it in the rearview mirror after you’ve asked yourself, “What was that substantial bump in the road?”
Prints do have some Prince in them, too: beats that feel like unsafe intercourse and vocal instrumentation that reminds you to use protection. The unending upbeatness of the record steers it dangerously close to the realm of children’s music, but it also makes a point of hitting Puff on the way through. I imagine that before Prints is done making music, the side of their tour van will have a variety of recognizable cartoon characters, like little Japanese flags on propeller-driven U.S. warplanes. —Danny Slaton
We Are Him
Angels of Light
<e for effort>
You gotta give Michael Gira some credit. The guy’s been around for a long time making music that only appeals to a handful of lonely nerds.
With his earlier band, Swans, he made a lot of noise so that a handful of people on the bottom part of Manhattan could know that he was really mad at society for being, like, decaying or something.
Eventually, Mike got a girlfriend. She was a gothic type like Kate Bush, so the band became a softer, more ethereal lame band. She must’ve broken up with him because the band broke up.
Most guys in their 50s probably would’ve given up on the whole music thing, but Gira kept going. He must’ve met a woman who likes folk music, because he is now quieter and more tuneful. Just not better. Like Nick Cave and Glenn Danzig before him, he seems to think being a grown-up means singing like Jim Morrison.
Nice try, but no. —Peter Berkowitz