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Here is “Bayou Lebatre,” the first song from Sabyre Rae’s EP Revel. Ms. Rae will be performing on the stage inside the record shop at our block party on April 22nd, along with Mike Munson, Ben Weaver and Dingus. We’ve posted set times for this stage and also the stage outside here. She first performed here several years ago as a member of Jack Klatt’s backing group, and played with him on his Mississippi Roll album.

Revel is her debut recording and you can hear another song from it on her Bandcamp page. We think her combination of country blues and swamp rock is a particularly unique sound, and we’re looking forward to hearing more recordings from her.

Yesterday’s post featured a new album by Jim Blaha which is a side project from his regular work with one of the most popular bands in the Twin Cities, the Blind Shake. His new Jim and the French Vanilla album is in stores today, and he is working on putting together a band to perform the new songs live. Also available this week is The Art of Not, a first solo project by Mike Blaha (billed as Blaha on the jacket). It’s been a dream week for us as huge Blind Shake fans, because the two solo albums really offer a new look into two of our favorite local musicians.

The “eye-catching” artwork by his brother on the jacket offers a hint to the humor inside, and to Blaha’s ability to balance affirmation with self-depreciation. In its own way, The Art of Not is an extension of “Reasonable World,” the catchy anthem at the core of the Blind Shake’s Celebrate Your Worth which extolls “giant girls [and] lazy boys” to “just figure it out.” It’s also a high-wire act where Blaha impresses us with his abilities and leaves us thinking about what he had to say.

Blaha’s delivers The Art of Not one-man-band style in the tradition of “Superstition,” overdubbing himself on guitar, bass and drums in Neil Weir’s venerated Blue Bell Knoll studio. Its rock and roll stripped to its essentials, but hardly lo-fi garage rock. In fact, there’s even an instrumental at the end of each side which recall the awesome (and lushly produced) album the Blind Shake made with Swami John Reis. The sound of The Art of Not perfectly fits the mood of Mike Blaha’s new songs.

Some of the songs, such as “Lemonade” heard here, move along at the old man’s pace of sixty-five beats-per-minute, almost unheard of on a Blind Shake album. The result is a heightened focus on the clean melodies and clever lines which is sometimes lost in the manic pace of Blaha’s main gig. In one of the catchiest moments on the album Blaha falls in love with loneliness (“Loneliness, I Love You”) with the rollicking humor of Camper van Beethoven.

Other songs are more sardonic, especially “Good Girls,” which opens with a contrast of good girls and bad, but quickly widens its scope:

Good world, I always thought you were a sad world
Sad world, you really opened my eyes

The two different impulses in so many of Blaha’s songs — self-reliance against self-depreciation — are most stark in a song which doesn’t stand out on a first listen but really sinks into a listener’s ears and thoughts. We hope “Frog & Toad” is a reference to the endlessly endearing Arnold Lobel stories, but it may just be another example of how we here at Hymies enterprises misinterpret songs. The song seems to recognize the two different personalities: the cautious, anxious toad and the confident and courageous frog, who are (in the title of one of Lobel’s stories) friends.

Just a song earlier Blaha encourages us to “take a lemon and throw it at life,” and he’s done a hell of a job of that with this album. Like the new Jim and the French Vanilla album featured yesterday, it seems like The Art of Not isn’t as high on the local music radar as a Blind Shake album, and instead stands on its own. The album is undeniably a testament to Blaha’s musical talents, but also his insight. He’s pretty hard on himself throughout, but also in “Lemonade” he sings:

You’re not so perfect, and I guess that I’m not so bad.

In local release news there are two solo records from the always-prolific Blind Shake out this week. After releasing four records in 2015 (which made our “best local releases” list at the end of the year) the band narrowed it down to a single LP last year (Celebrate Your Worth, which would have topped the “best” list if we had made one in December) while working on the two projects which they delivered this week.

In deference to the fact that they’re brothers as well as bandmates, we’re going to separate the two solo records instead of posting them together. While the two new LPs are similar, they definitely represent the different directions the band has moved its music in recent years.

Blind Shake fans here in the Twin Cities are likely to recognize the last Jim and the French Vanilla recording because a couple of its limited run of hundred copies are still kickin’ around local shops. There was a CD-R before than which is presumably even more obscure — all of this is unlikely to be the same fate for this new album, which is being released by Portland-based punk rock powerhouse Dirtnap Records and given a nice and well-deserved promotional push.

Afraid of the House is an altogether different animal from those stripped-down acoustic-ish recordings. In fact, the opening track, “When You’re Down,” will burst out of your speakers with the same focused drive that has made the Blind Shake a live favorite in the Twin Cities for years.

The last time Jim and Mike Blaha recorded together as a duo was on Shadow in the Cracks, a thematic album on almost oppressively pessimistic themes. Afraid of the House is equally fearful if less focused on a specific setting, even though its a more cathartically rockin’ album than most of what bills itself as punk rock these days. The album balances its dark, Black Sabbath-y themes with the spirit of 60s garage nuggets like this one, making it an eerily apt soundtrack to the times. In one of the album’s heaviest-hitting tracks, “Grow Like Rabbits,” Jim captures the uncertainty of the times.

When you turn to rabbits, no one could complain
All the things are backed up and no one takes the blame

We’re not certain what it means, and its hard to understand some of the lyrics on Afraid of the House, but the only one thing which actually complains in “Grow Like Rabbits” is the oceans. And we wondered if we’re hearing a famous rabbit in the chorus of “I Have to Slow Down,” which starts with “I’m late!” Who knows? We here at Hymies Industries are famous for misunderstanding lyrics, but there’s definitely a sense of isolation and uncertainty in both songs.

Jim has enlisted Mike Blaha and Jillian Schroeder of Teenage Moods to bring the full-band Jim and the French Vanilla to the stage, and he tells us rehearsals have gone well. In the mean time, this is an album sure to please long time fans without treading over familiar territory.

Coming up tomorrow: The Art of Not by (Mike) Blaha

pleasure-horse-lost-in-the-mountain

A little over a year and a half ago Pleasure Horse, Minneapolis’ finest cosmic American country outfit, rustled our hearts with a self-titled EP full of big stories from the open plains. At the time, we posted that the disc’s arrangements were “so consistently inventive its impossible to pick a favorite moment on this album,” and we’ve recommended it to nearly every country fan we know. Along the way we also encouraged everyone who’d listen to catch ’em at a show because Pleasure Horse is one of the best live country acts in the Twin Cities. Unfortunately, those shows are few and far between.

And while we celebrated the season of year’s end “best of” lists by writing about how the critics are sometimes downright wrong, we’re pretty enthusiastic about their new disc, too. If you like country music, especially the good ol’ outlaw stuff, you’re gonna like this.

Lost on the Mountain is half the length of that first disc, but doesn’t lose its depth. These five new songs by Tim Evanson frame short stories in catchy riffs and country nuggets. Where the last disc roamed the range from honky tonk to tejano, Mountain is more focused on the classic country-rock sound found in “Poco territory” to great success. Townes van Zandt himself would have been fortunate to be backed by a band which works together this well a little more often. There’s enough familiar sounds from that era, like Celeste Huele’s keys on loan from the brown Band album, to satisfy the outlaw country enthusiast, and enough new ideas — notably guitarist Ben Hahowald’s sharp solos and interplay with bassist Darin Dahlmeier — to expand the range of the cosmic American sound. Best of all, they’re playing a release show for the new disc this weekend so you can hear it all straight from the horse’s mouth.

Pleasure Horse will celebrate the release of their Lost on the Mountain EP with a late show this Saturday night at the Icehouse. Also performing will be Suzie and Fletcher Magellan. Details here.

For a band with an established base of devoted fans, there’s a fine line between maintaining your image and cultivating your sound. Nobody wants their new album to be the equivalent of the Clash’s Cut the Crap or, well, any record by the Wings. The natural desire to grow as an artist has to be balanced against the expectations of the audience.

blind-shake-celebrate

This is all the more challenging if you released no less than four records the previous year. Enter the Blind Shake, whose quartet of new LPs in 2015 were each individually solid enough to sustain the trio’s reputation.

Full disclosure: one of those four albums, Shadow in the Cracks, was a side-project, and another, Modern Surf Classics, was a collaboration with underground guitar legend John Reis. Each of those is unmistakably in the Blind Shake oeuvre.

In 2016 the band often regarded as the best live act in the Twin Cities has offered a more modest program of one LP, out this week from Goner Records who released two of last year’s releases. Celebrate Your Worth is their most expansive and inventive album yet, and if any fans felt record collecting fatigue after last year’s onslaught, they won’t regret purchasing this one.

Opening in familiar territory with a song called “I Shot all the Birds,” the new album quickly follows the form of last year’s Fly Right by moving in multiple moody directions. Celebrate Your Worth, surprisingly, contains the most ‘pop radio’ song the band has ever recorded — maybe the Twin Cities’ Current will finally recognize this band after giving “Reasonable World” a listen.

“Reasonable World” is also notable for its vocal clarity, contrasted from the previous track on which Mike Blaha’s vocals are steeped deeply in reverb. This is also the first Blind Shake record to include the lyrics inside the jacket. Jim Blaha tells us this is because they were especially proud of this album, and they should be although we believe they have been consistently compelling since Breakfast of Failures a couple years ago. Not surprisingly, the band is still singing about (alternately) alienation and self-determination.

Celebrate Your Worth also delves into almost drone-y psych rock territory in “Alicante,” an epic for the Blind Shake in that it clocks in at around four and a half minutes. They even expand their sound with the unexpected but absolutely fitting appearance of an organ. This creates one of those moments where the production is so tastefully rich it recalls the massive-budget big name albums of the 70s. “Alicante” is one of those songs that simply sounds so good you feel like you could pick it up and hold it.

This isn’t to say the band doesn’t deliver on what they do best: “Corpse on the Roof” mines the manic and angular territory of their classic sound, and “Broken Racehorse,” which Goner Records debuted last week, feels like a marriage of new wave and post rock. In this same vein the second side provides one of the catchiest moments on the album in “Demox,” which sounds like the evil twin of Billy Idol’s “White Wedding.”

We don’t doubt that these three could keep delivering the same old sound and record labels would compete to release the results. While we’re certain we’d still enjoy those records, what we think fuels the devotion of the Blind Shake’s fans is their willingness to experiment. Celebrate Your Worth is a risky album for a group who’s really striven to establish a national name, but the gambit is sure to pay off. It is one of the best records from the Twin Cities this year.

The Blind Shake’s release show for Celebrate Your Worth is this Saturday night at 7th Street Entry. Also performing are Fury Things and Tongue Party. Details on the First Avenue website here.

The Gated Community

Country Hymn opens with a warm, old-time revival atmosphere. “Betty on the Road” sounds like a Gillian Welch and David Rawlings collaboration, but the disc takes a quick turn towards more familiar Gated Community territory with a raucous cover of “Odds and Ends,” a song from Dylan’s Basement Tapes. This band has always had a knack for sitting on that fence between traditional country music and novelty, which isn’t as easily done as one would think.

A little levity goes a long way in adding weight and depth to the more sentimental moments on the album, like “Fading Flowers,” a Tom Petty-ish tune about growing older with a little grace. Sumanth Gopinath lets himself be the subject of self-depreciation and sarcasm throughout (with lines like “I’m a piece of a work of art”), while the delivery is traded through the group in the same way classic country-rock outfits would share the role of lead vocals, ie Poco, the Byrds, the Band, etc. In tunes like “I Can’t Get Right” Gopinath remind us of the Carpetbaggers, one of the most criminally under-appreciated Americana acts to ever come out of Minnesota. There’s probably more of a scene to support this sort of music in the Cities today, and the Gated Community has already recorded as much as that great mid-90s trio.

You can hear the whole album on The Gated Community’s bandcamp page here. It’s more cohesive than their last disc (which we posted here), and there’s a definite improvement in the recording. Country Hymn was recorded and produced by Secret Stash’s John Miller, and the homey warmth of those 70s country-rock records reverberates through the disc, along with the more general clarity of those bigger production bluegrass records, the Welch/Rawlings sound we mentioned up above. Miller might be known for his work on Secret Stash’s retro-soul recordings, but he was a great choice for this project as well.

(Incidentally, we posted our favorite song by the Carpetbaggers (here) after finding there was so little of their music to be heard online, and later received a nice note from John Magnuson who wrote it. Having had a chance to see some of our favorite local acts from the 90s reunite a couple years ago for the Extreme Noise 20th anniversary celebration — including the Strike and Dirt Poor — we’d love to see the Carpetbaggers once more)

These days, there’s enough Americana acts in Minneapolis to fill the bill of every neighborhood bar for a three day weekend, so its actually become a competitive market. Heck, without even leaving our garden we can look over the fence to see the homes of two country acts who have played here in the record shop and recorded new songs over the past couple years. The challenge these days is to distinguish one’s self — which The Gated Community has done with their third disc.

The album release show for Country Hymn by the Gated Community is tonight at the Eagles Club #34. Maybe we’ll see you there, but we’re gonna also have to rush across the river to the Turf Club for Black Market Brass‘ show later this evening! We’re sure to post some songs from their new album soon, but we only just got our copy yesterday!

 

It is nearly impossible to separate the poems of Langston Hughes from jazz, if only for their clever use of syncopation and repetition. He is often described as a jazz poet, and evidence of this influence can be seen as early as “When Sue Wears Red,” poem he wrote as a teenager.

As a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance, he in turn influenced many jazz musicians — when last we visited Hughes here on the Hymies blog, it was to hear Nina Simone sing the song he wrote for her, “Backlash Blues” as well as a 90s collaboration between Courtney Pine and Cassandra Wilson to interpret his poem “I’ve Known Rivers.” This second song was first recorded by Gary Bartz in 1973, but we still haven’t found a replacement for our warped copy!

Hughes himself made a jazz album in 1958 for MGM Records, which was later reissued (as pictured here) by Verve Records in 1966. On it, he reads a ‘Greatest Hits’ assortment of poems over two small jazz combos, one led by jazz writer and occasional composer Leonard Feather, who produced the project, and one led by Charles Mingus.

weary-blues

You have almost certainly on the back of an LP jacket if you own more than a handful of jazz records. He was, for many years, perhaps the most prolific writer of jazz liner notes in the world. In addition, his 1960 New Encyclopedia of Jazz is an absolutely indispensable compendium of history and criticism. He was a friend to Louis Armstrong, once employed as a press agent by Duke Ellington, and one of the earliest supporters of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker with his 1949 book Inside Be Bop. He recorded albums as a pianist sporadically in the 50s and again in the 70s, but remains best known as a writer.

Leonard Feather never wrote the notes to a Charles Mingus album (in fact, the Mingus eulogy from Eric Dolphy’s Last Date we quoted just last week was replaced on reissues by notes from Feather). He often wrote about Mingus’ music, however, twice inviting him to his “Blindfold Tests” (featured in his Platterbrains radio broadcasts as well as printed in Metronome and Down Beat) in which an artist responds to several unidentified selections of jazz music.

Two years after their collaboration with Langston Hughes, Feather would be “recording director” for Mingus’ only Mercury album, Pre-Bird, which included a reworking of Weary Blues‘s “Weird Nightmare.” Still, Feather and Mingus are strange bedfellows, and it comes across in the difference between the arrangements they produced to accompany Hughes.

Weary Blues is of interest to collectors of Mingus’ extensive discography. Falling just before the watershed year (1959) in which he composed and recorded Blues & Roots, Mingus Ah Um and Mingus Dynasty, his apparently extemporaneous arrangements hint at what he had in the works. Several motifs from those three great albums can be recognized, even though he’s working with a substantially smaller group and under far more auspicious conditions — for contractural reasons, the quintet’s leadership was credited to pianist Horace Parlan, even though the work is undeniably Mingusonian.

Mingus is far more fit for the role of framing Hughes’ words than Feather, although the later is himself also a writer. Consider Mingus’ second appearance in Feather’s “Blindfold Test” in April 1960, in which he completely dismisses the first record, Manny Albam album, and would rather talk about the Civil Rights movement:

Take it off … Look, I don’t want to drag you or anybody. I don’t think maybe you should give me a Blindfold Test , because I’ve changed. I didn’t let it get started — maybe that’s not fair of me? But it disturbs my ulcer. I’d rather talk about something important — all the stuff that’s happening down south.

Feather’s form — intended to slyly suggest talent is often not judged on its own merit but under pre-conceived notions of race, gender or age — undoubtedly frustrated the iconoclastic Mingus.

Although he certainly had extensive connections in New York’s jazz scene (as evident in the group he created to perform his arrangements on Side A), Feather chose Mingus to arrange music for Weary Blues likely because of the bassist’s often confrontational attitude. When, in 1979, he wrote Mingus’ obituary for the L.A. Times, Feather described him as “a brilliant man of strong convictions, he was outspoken on racial and social matters and became a storm center in many confrontations during his peak years.”

The section here is titled “Dream Montage” and contains all or portions of fourteen of Hughes’ poems (depending on how you count his superfluous commentaries). The most notable of these is “Harlem,” the 1951 poem known for asking, “What happens to a dream deferred?” as it explores the American dream as experienced by African Americans. Its final line — “Or does it explode?” — almost ideally suited to Mingus’ musical and political leanings.

Another of the poems in this passage reads almost like it came from Mingus’ 1971 autobiography, Beneath the Underdog. In its entirety, “Final Curve” reads:

When you turn the corner
And You have run into yourself
Then you know that you have turned
All the corners that are left

Of course, Langston Hughes’ readers have been wondering what he might have meant here for decades. Is the “Final Curve” the conclusion of a personal journey along the lines of Mingus’ Me, Myself and Eye and other late compositions, or is the poem part of Hughes’ push for cultural nationalism. So much of his work was about how the African American journey to the American dream began at home, in taking pride and ownership of a heritage even when others do not. Or, as Mingus wrote in Beneath the Underdog:

So he must use what time he has creating now for the future and utilize the past only to help the future, not as a razor strop for guilts and fears that inhibit his very being. Or like it said at the end of a labor song I liked a lot when I was a kid: what I mean is, take it easy, but take it.

 

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