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JEFFREY ST. CLAIR
Drive-By Truckers: English Oceans (ATO, 2014)
If the audacious southern novelist Harry Crews had been a rocker, he might have sounded a lot like the Drive-By Truckers: loud, savage, smart and rude. The Truckers play southern gothic with power chords and swampy keys. English Oceans, the Athens-based band’s tenth studio album, marks the maturation of guitarist Mike Cooley as a songwriter. His lyrics are as vivid and funny as those of his running partner Patterson Hood. Indeed, the sequencing of these songs about intoxicated living, one-night stands, crappy jobs, everyday violence and political villainy unfolds like a cutting contest between the two musicians, where antes are being raised and scores are being settled. The album opens with Cooley’s “Shit Shots Count,” a full-throtle rocker backed by blistering horns that sounds like an outtake from the Stones’ “Sticky Fingers” sessions. Though Cooley finally gets equal billing, Hood hasn’t been slacking off: “Pauline Hawkins” and “When Walter Went Crazy” rank among the best and weirdest songs he’s written. After nearly 20 years of playing together, the Truckers continue to evolve in unexpected sonic directions, but there’s no evidence here that they’ve lost any of their zeal for plugging in and kicking ass.
The Souljazz Orchestra: Inner Fire (Strut, 2014)
Who says contemporary jazz has lost its political edge? With songs such as “Kapital,” “State Terrorism,” “Insurrection,” and “Ya Basta,” the Souljazz Orchestra, a collective of astoundingly talented musicians based in Ottawa, has shown that its affinities reside somewhere to the left of the Clash. Of course, song titles are one thing, but there’s nothing more revolutionary than a funky groove and that’s were the TSO digs in deep and never relents. Inner Fire, the Orchestra’s seventh and most coherent record, is a swirling, seamless mélange of world beats, blues, salsas and Caribbean rhythms. The album opens with a hypnotic sax invocation that echoes back to the recently departed Yusaf Lateef’s “Eastern Sounds.” Recorded in glorious analogue by bandleader and composer Pierre Chretien, the playing is deep, prismatic, and furiously kinetic, especially on the Afro-fusion of “Sommett on Sommett.” Inner Fire is densely-textured and ambitious music that is so seditiously contagious and contemptuous of authority that your feet and your hips start to move all by themselves.
Laura Cantrell: No Way There From Here (Spit & Polish, 2014)
Laura Cantrell, a true child of Nashville, is one of my favorite songwriters this side of Iris Dement, and her voice, like Dement’s, is instantly distinctive. These are her songs, sung her way, as if they’d spilled forth straight from her life. The intimately-crafted music must be a challenge for other singers to cover with any authenticity. Like Iris, Cantrell obsesses over her work, fine-tuning, retrofitting and polishing, to the point where years pass between records. “No Way There From Here” is just her fifth release since 2000 and one of those albums was a dazzling collection of Kitty Wells covers. But the wait has been worth it. This is an exquisite suite of songs about the complications and domestic ironies of life in recession-bruised America, highlighted by “Washday Blues,” “Barely Said a Thing” and “Glass Armour.” Cantrell makes country music infused with great intelligence, emotional depth and human empathy.
Jeffrey St. Clair, editor of CounterPunch, once played two-chord guitar in a Naptown garage band called The Empty Suits.
Real Estate: Atlas (Domino, 2014)
The third album from New Jersey’s laid-back Real Estate might just be their best yet. Geeky frontman Martin Courtney’s vocals are crisp and dreamy, melodic but not over-bearing. The album itself is moody and forsaken. Sure to be in high-rotation around my house for awhile.
The Bellrays: Raw Collection (Uppercut, 2003)
If you haven’t heard of The Bellrays before, this collection of tunes is rough but a nice cross section of their excellent catalogue. Lead singer Lisa Kekaula is soulful and visceral. Garage rock with a little twist of Aretha Franklin? Sign me up.
Brand Nubian: One for All (Elektra Records, 1990)
I remember the day I opened my parents’ mailbox and grabbed my copy of Source magazine (I was probably the only, and surely the youngest, subscriber in all of Montana) and read a review of One for All. Source scored the album a perfect Five Stars. I dropped the magazine immediately and ran across the street, grabbed my buddy Phil (the only other hip hop head I knew) and convinced my poor dad to drive us to the local music store so I could ‘waste’ my $10 allowance on the cassette. We returned home soon after and didn’t stop listening to that tape for at least six months straight. This week I dusted off the old copy and was transported back to that first listen. Brand Nubian rips James Brown and funky R&B beats. They rap about sex, black politics, New York life and Islam’s influence on the inner city. Grand Pupa, who later left the group, brought a bit of intelligence that was lost on Brand Nubian’s latter records. They were my portal to another reality. A place I had never seen but only imagined. That’s what hip hop did for a lot of us culturally sheltered kids of the ’90s. Thank goodness Tipper Gore failed in her quest to take it away from us.
Joshua Frank is managing editor of CounterPunch.
The Gun Club, Fire of Love (Rhino)
Any disrespecting punk knows The Gun Club – fronted by the legendary, charismatic and toxin-fueled Jeffrey Lee Pierce. The LA band combined country, blues, goth, death, sex, drugs and guitars in a sick smog that sounds as raw and hard today as ever. I’m keen on their first album, from 1981, Fire of Love, right now.
The Jeffrey Lee Pierce Sessions Project, Volumes 1 and 2: We Are Only Riders, and The Journey is Long (Glitterhouse Records)
This project unfolded in 2010 when Tony Smelik, a friend of the late, great Jeffrey Lee Pierce, found a trove of unreleased recordings in the musician’s loft after his death from the three apocalyptic scythes of HIV, hepatitis, and liver failure, at age 38. Smelik gathered collaborators with and admirers of Pierce and The Gun Club to record a series of albums, and the latest is scheduled for release this May. Jon Langford of the Mekons created the album art. The list of musicians who have contributed to the three-volume set is heavy, including: Nick Cave, Debbie Harry, Lydia Lunch, Thurston Moore, Iggy Pop, and Mark Lanegan. And it’s pretty good, so far. It’s hard to screw up a Jeffrey Lee song unless the pretentious trumps the passion – and, yes, there are plenty of those to skip on the first two volumes. I just heard that that Nick Cave and Mark Lanegan are touring the West Coast together this summer (swoon), so I highly expect a love for Jeffrey Lee, and this project, brought them together. Here’s to deep, dark, dirty death punk.
Kristin Kolb writes the Daydream Nation column for CounterPunch magazine.
Duo Landon: Icelandic Violin Duos, (MSR Classics, 2012).
The violin partners Hlíf Sigurjönsdóttir and Martin Frewer present a program of music by contemporary Icelandic composers, much of it taking inspiration from the island’s rich folk traditions. These epigrammatic dialogues—rarely longer than a minute are two—make me think of Nordic sprites and goblins: mischievous, joyful, brooding, they fret and joke, dance and sing. The two violin voices enthrall, delight, comfort and cajole through the lightless days of winter to the outbreak of spring at the close of the disc.
David Yearsley, author of “Bach’s Feet,” once played the world’s oldest piano and didn’t damage it … much.
Patty Griffin: Silver Bell (A&M Universal, 2013)
True Mathematics: After Dark (Champion, 1987)
John Handy: Live at Monterey (Koch, 1996)
Lee Ballinger co-edits Rock and Rap Confidential and writes about music and politics for CounterPunch magazine.
Wrekmeister Harmonies: You’ve Always Meant So Much to Me.
Just saw this played live on Monday night at the Empty Bottle in Chicago. I love a good drone and this combines drones and black metal.
A wonderful, somewhat forgotten Bahamanian/New Yorker and a favorite of Nina Simone.
Devil Bell Hippies: Delamer Duverus (Asmodean Titan Slayer).
Unclassifiable (possibly unlistenable) recording from the early 80s Chicago no-wave scene. Ripe for a revival!
Sally Timms is a singer, songwriter and member of The Mekons. Her most recent solo record is ‘World of Him.‘ She lives in Chicago.
KEVIN ALEXANDER GRAY
Aretha Franklin: Aretha’s Greatest Hits (Atlantic Records, 1971.)
Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell: Greatest Hits (Tamla Records, 1970.)
Graham Central Station: Release Yourself (Warner Brothers Records, 1974.)
Kevin Gray’s latest book, Killing Trayvon, (co-edited with JoAnn Wypijewski and Jeffrey St. Clair) will be published by CounterPunch this spring.
Amon Duul II: Yeti (Revisted Records, 2005)
Amon Duul II were a staple on the German rock festival scene in the 1970s. As their name suggests, they are the second incarnation of Amon Duul, which began as a political counterculture commune in Munich in 1967. After a disagreement over politics, the group changed, lost some members and gained new ones. Their music is unlike any other psychedelic rock outfit. It is acid rock that scratches some of the brain’s darker regions, occasionally leaving lesions.
Steve Earle: Copperhead Road (MCA, 1990)
Country rock with an edge. Steve Earle weaves wonderful stories of life on the fringes that are essentially American. The title tune is one of the best songs written in the last fifty years about marijuana—right up there with Peter Rowan’s “Free Mexican Air Force” and the New Riders of the Purple Sage’s “Henry.”
Patti Smith Group: Radio Ethiopia (Sbme, 2009)
Patti and her band take it to the edge on this album. Originally dismissed by many critics and fans of Smith’s first album, this work is full of loud guitar that ravages the listener’s ears. Lyrically, the stories inside the songs give voice to the anger and despair symptomatic of the punk movement.
Ron Jacobs’ book on the Seventies, Daydream Sunset, will published by CounterPunch this summer.
The Duke and the King (Silva America 2011)
A compilation derived from their two previous releases not available in the US. How can one not love a band named for the two river charlatans from Huck Finn? This is the band of Simon Felice (of the better knownFelice Bros). A very difficult style to label, incorporating elements of soul, folk, jazz, funk, even country. I did not just make that up. Things that don’t belong together, right? But the effect is an incredible smoothness that is both hypnotic and anti-hypertensive. The song “Shaky”–seemingly an ode to shaking your ass despite PTSD from war and the meds piled on to improve the situation. “Hudson River” sounds like Motown had a baby with more recent music, producing a tune (again) ridiculously smooth and absolutely gorgeous. Simi Stone belts outsomething both plaintive and bold in “No Easy Way Out”. Lungs blasting like a siren! “O’Gloria” is supposed to be a “dope dealer’s hymn written in the woods”. Okay. It is just achingly beautiful. There is a little wryhumor as well, in “The Morning I Get To Hell” there’s a description of a possible afterlife: “They’ll play me my life on a tv so I see it all, everything I’d never tell, till I’m begging the anchorman for my one phonecall”–all the torment of hell, delivered up with pure fluid notes. The Duke and the King are just that good. They even make hell sound nice.
Kathleen Wallace writes about music and culture. She lives in the Midwest.
PETER STONE BROWN
Paul Metsa: Blues, Ballads & Broadsides (CD Baby, 2012)
Cool compilation of Minneapolis based singer-songwriter.
Ray Benson: A Little Piece (Bismeaux, 2014)
The leader of Asleep At The Wheel steps out for an album of highly personal originals with no boogie or swing, in a multitude of styles with beyond-hot guitar throughout. Also features a duet with Willie Nelson on a previously unknown Waylon Jennings song.
Michael Bloomfield: From His Head to His Heart to His Hands (Columbia Legacy, 2014)
Finally a box set retrospective of one of the great guitar players who would not play the star game. The CD version features 3 discs including many previous unreleased tracks and a DVD with a documentary film, “Sweet Blues” by filmmaker Bob Sarles.
Peter Stone Brown is a musician and musicologist.