Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Album Review: Lambchop Nixon (reissue)

Merge Records

This year, Merge Records is celebrating their 25th anniversary with a 45 subscription series, a 25k race, and a reissue of a classic Merge album every month. Considering Merge’s back catalog, that’s a pretty fantastic way to get acquainted, or reacquainted, with some of the best music of the last 20 years. 

Kicking off the reissue series is Lambchop’s Nixon, originally released in 2000 and a diamond in the rough that has never been pressed to wax. It’s not the most obvious choice; Lambchop has never been one of the label’s more popular bands. They have a solid fan base overseas, and are highly lauded, legendary even, at indie record stores in their Nashville hometown and around the country. But Merge’s method has always been to release great records, whether they sell millions or hundreds, and they’ve stood by the perpetually underrated Lambchop since the beginning.

Nixon is the band’s fifth album, and a great entry point into the band’s catalog. Never a band with strict membership policies, by this point in their career Lambchop was rolling 14 members deep, filling in songs with lush strings, horns, slide guitar, banjo, and whatever else they could catch hold of. As the band kept ballooning, the original alt-country sound they started from began to absorb whole new genres and influences. It could have been a mess, but it’s not: Nixon’s arrangement feels classic and complete, while still being all over the place.

Lead singer/guitarist Kurt Wagner’s voice is generally low and calm, like he’s sitting next to you singing a lullaby, complementing the mellow arrangements on tracks like opener “The Old Gold Shoe” and “Nashville Parent.” Verse after verse of smart lyrics give a little wink and smile with their cleverness. Echoes of funk and soul, as well as Wagner’s rarely used, strange falsetto, pop up on “Grumpus” and “What Else Could It Be,” while a gospel choir help make “Up with People” a grand spectacle, and the pinnacle song of the band’s long career. 

Over the course of the record, things start off sedately enough, and the narrative threads wind toward a happy peak. But that’s just the middle of the album—a point made more apparent in the vinyl’s two-sided incarnation than on the original CD—and the album slides southward from there, eventually ending in the darkest of places. It’s laid out perfectly that way, with ups and downs feeling like you’re floating in a sea where things are starting to get worse. Jack Probst

Album Review: Superchunk, Indoor Living (reissue)

Merge Records

For those of us who were around but not actually listening to Merge records in the ‘90s, Superchunk existed as kind of an urban legend. You might see the bespectacled David Cross on Mr. Show with Bob and David wearing a Superchunk shirt but, this being life before the internet,  you’d have no clue what it meant. I’ll admit that was my experience with the band until 2011’s Majesty Shredding—their ninth—made me track down their back catalog. 

The new reissue version of 1997’s Indoor Living is manna from the musical heavens. Contrasted with The Laughter Guns, an EP released in 1996, this version of ‘Chunk is far less punk-driven and more expansive. There are also elements that weren’t there on older Superchunk albums, like the piano that shows up on the excellent yet somber “Under Our Feet.” 

But what’s more apparent now is the existential angst of the lyrics, dealing with love lost and hearts destroyed. On “Unbelievable Things,” lead character Mac McCaughan bitterly describes a relationship between “a queen with several kings / and I, a bird without wings,” and deep cut “Every Single Instinct” burns with resentment.  On the technical side, yes, much of Superchunk’s signature, ear-bleeding guitar work remains, on tracks like “Burn Last Sunday,” where a jangly riff builds inexorably to a mountain of noise—but you can also more clearly hear the low end, as John Wurster wrestles a coherent drum phrase out of thin air on “Nu Bruises,” and Laura Ballance provides “The Popular Music” with graceful bass. 

Especially entertaining in the reissued edition of Indoor Living is the appended live disc, Clambakes Vol 8: We’d Like to Thank the Homecoming Committee – Live at Duke 1997. It’s a great encapsulation of the band’s live show at the time, which was nearly as cuttingly funny as the band was tight.  Jason Robinson

Album Review: Ellen The Felon And The Mattronome, Bang Bang Bang


Self Release
Ellen Cook, quite simply, is a woman born during the wrong time: Bang Bang Bang should have been the punk album of the Big Band era.

Ellen The Felon And The Mattronome’s debut album defies any specific genre in the best way possible. Starting strong with “Crazy Psycho” and “Where the Heart Is,” the album really hits its stride by third track “Chaos,” where the band sounds like they could’ve backed Miles Davis during the Birth of the Cool sessions. Drummer Matthew Reyland and saxophonist Dave Farver are on fire, Cook’s lyrics flow like Beat poetry, and the music evokes images of Gaslight Square in the ‘60s on a long-gone Friday night.

Songs like “Cross Marketing” and “Party Girl” showcase Cook’s masterful arrangements. From the start, “Cross Marketing” feels like the love child of Frank Zappa and Amanda Palmer, and “Party Girl”’s tender shuffling introduction gives way to a delicious melody that sets up a chorus part riot grrrl and part cabaret.

Bang Bang Bang sounds fresh and exciting, like a band giving everything it has while having the most fun possible. From the poppiness of “Crazy Psycho” to the cha-cha melody of “Oh Timothy” or the weirdness of closing track “Temple,” glimpses of the band’s source material flash by. Cook’s voice is in top form from start to finish, Reyland and violinist Abbie Steiling are the perfect complement to Cook’s piano, and this might just be the classiest, campiest and most vulgar album of 2013. Rev. Daniel W. Wright

Album Review: Tonya Gilmore Phantoms, Fill the Sky

Ravens Flight Records

Oregon-based singer and multi-instrumentalist Tonya Gilmore may just be this century’s premier murder balladeer.

Several of the 14 songs on Phantoms Fill the Sky have appeared  in other forms on Gilmore’s previous releases, but all of them have been thoughtfully revisited and re-polished for the new album. And while she does capably play the bulk of the album’s rhythms and melodies—on vocals, acoustic guitar, piano, and hand percussion—a pirate’s crew of about eight other multi-instrumentalists really brings Gilmore’s tunes to a whole new level. The whole album feels meatier as a result—oh, and did I mention there’s a guy, Mark Powers, who is credited with playing the goat toenails, along with drums and percussion?

This is not an album for the light-hearted. The closest Gilmore comes to being even remotely upbeat is on a couple of new songs, namely “Brittle Bones” and the down-tempo, piano-driven waltz “Casino Night,” in which Gilmore calmly proclaims her certainty that “I’ve no god above to call it sin / or to do me in.” 

Where Gilmore truly shines is in her lyric writing and her vocal delivery. With a frequent and at times frantic vibrato, she exudes power while slipping effortlessly between vocal registers. She has an innate ability to capture the dynamics of the lyrics within her delivery, so that she embodies the loss, death, ghosts and betrayals of which she sings. It’s definitely dramatic material, and she works it like Edgar Allan Poe writing for musical theater. The songs are often layered with metaphor and thick with images, like short stories you have to read in their entirety to understand what’s really going on—though she can be unsettlingly specific too, as with “Pitchfork and a Torch,” wherein the narrator croons darkly to her lover, “I know the vein in your neck better than the rest of your head.” Suzie Gilb

Album Review: Aquitaine American, Pulverizer Pt. 2

self release
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that sequels are, with few exceptions, bad ideas. This is not the case for STL’s own Aquitaine (formerly Supermoon) and their follow-up EP to 2012’s American Pulverizer. There’s a lot that will be familiar to fans of the first, including sharp guitars seemingly pulled directly from the hands of The Jam’s Paul Weller, and vocals out of Peter Murphy’s back catalog driven to post-punk speed. Fans of classic British mod/new wave will have plenty to enjoy here, not the least of which is the guitar riff for leadoff track “Robotson,” the closest you’ll get to those quintessential sounds without actually riding a time machine back to 1977. 

But the Brit-leaning stuff isn’t all there is to enjoy; drummer Chris Luckett bashes and crashes without losing momentum, finding weird little pockets of interesting stuff; bassist and band leader Dave Collett brings the heat to the low end; and former guitarist Gerald Good (now replaced onstage but not on this record by Graham Day) shines as both riff writer and singer on the unexpectedly sentimental “Meteor Showers. “ A smattering of familiar sounds cue more of the group’s influences—The Kinks, Pulp, Johnny Marr, The Who—but the resulting mixture is purely theirs. The only real problem with this fine disc of rockers is that it’s too short. Take that as a compliment.  Jason Robinson

Album Review: Hazard To Ya Booty, The Precipice

Low Tone Records

Hazard To Ya Booty is St. Louis’ best party band.  Even the most cynical among us can’t help but shake the body part they warn you about in the band’s name. On their latest release, The Precipice, there are no surprises—this is exactly what you expect, and want, from the band that rocks the party. From the funky, slapped bass notes of the title track ’til the last call to enjoy the simple things in life, The Precipice is a how-to guide on getting the most dancing into your life. 

Hazard has always been steeped in that river funk, the New Orleans sound that so often drifts upriver to St. Louis. You can smell the crawfish on this album and taste the Blackened Voodoo. 

The big problem that Hazard has always faced is the one that dogs all bands of their ilk: how do you recreate the hard-hitting, sweaty, booty-shaking, beer-soaked live shows in the studio? The Precipice can’t supply the stale beer, body heat, and rubbin up, but it does provide the soundtrack so you can get it on in a time and place of your own choosing. The groove they provide is hard and it doesn’t stop—now, getting it dirty, getting it real funky, is up to you and your crew. Hugh Scott

Album Review: Angel Olsen, Burn Your Fire for No Witness


I first discovered Angel Olsen here in the pages of Eleven magazine, nearly a year ago exactly, in a letter to the editor. The author of that letter held Olsen up as the shining example of a musician whom he felt had been failed by the St. Louis scene—a native talent this city somehow couldn’t successfully foster and support, who would be forced to find success elsewhere. And while I’ve forgotten about the silliness of the argument that followed, I’ve never forgotten about Angel Olsen. That letter led me to pick up her 2012 album, Half Way Home, and it has rarely left my playlists or turntable since. It fills me with dark wonder. I’ve emphatically thrust it upon friends and new flames, consoled myself with it during break-ups … hell, it even soundtracks my housecleaning. It’s that voice.

God knows, it’s that voice.

Like Judy Garland, or Cindy Walker, through a David Lynch filter. Dipping up and down; arching lower and then reaching new heights. All vulnerable and quivering and powerful at the same time. Olsen brings this same aching intensity and talent to Burn Your Fire for No Witness, her newest on Jagjaguwar Records. By turns wounded, defiant, and  cautiously hopeful, this one plays like the spiritual successor to Jessica Lea Mayfield’s terrific Tell Me (and hey: go pick up that album, too). As with Olsen’s last effort, I haven’t stopped listening to this album, and likely won’t anytime soon. 

As an opener, “Unfucktheworld” is the perfect bridge between the airy sparseness of Olsen’s last album and a new approach exemplified by the album’s surprising, fuzzed-out rocker “Forgiven/Forgotten.” And while the one-two punch of this track and “Hi-Five” will become college radio favorites, it’s Olsen’s heartbreaking and stormy slow-burners that, for me, provide the real weight and replay value. The production may be a bit bigger this time around, but this decision serves Olsen’s aesthetic rather than distracting from it. And, most importantly, it doesn’t overshadow Olsen’s pen-poised lyrics or raw emotion. “Won’t you open a window sometime?” she coos lowly on the soaring closer, her voice breathlessly cracking and pleading. “What’s so wrong with the light?” And, with that, she disappears. 

I’m hoping Angel Olsen will return to St. Louis soon in support of this release [And she will be, Sunday 4/27 - huzzah! Ed.]. The last time Olsen breezed through town, time stopped for me. She mesmerized and silenced an entire room with a voice, a guitar, and a penetrating gaze. You could hear a PBR pull-tab drop. It was an unforgettable concert. I can’t even imagine what the next show, or her future, will bring. Chris Ward