Album reviews

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We’re pretty excited to see the Yawpers at 7th Street Entry on Friday. Their 2015 album American Man didn’t live up to the praise we’d heard poured on the trio, but this year’s Boy in a Well has become the subject of fascination around here. Why do we love this album so much? The record ostensibly tells the story of an unwanted boy abandoned in a well and is set in France during the first World War, but its not the rock opera aspirations with which we have fallen in love. In fact, we haven’t really figured out the story — but then again can you really explain the plot of Tommy without sounding dumb (bam, pun intended) or do you just like what you hear?

Boy in a Well is an absolutely magical amalgam of Americana. Rockabilly roots run alongside all the things we secretly love about hair metal. Some of the songs start or end in standard American folk music but take surprising turns along the journey. One of the things that really knocks us out about Boy in a Well is the incredibly inventive performance of drummer Noah Shomberg, who shifts genres with grace and really drives the connections which establish the album’s concept. He’s so damn good you can almost forgive them for being one of those bands without a bass. Lead singer Nathanial Cook, who turns from Jimmie Rodgers to Axl Rose as a born storyteller, couldn’t have realized his vision without Shomberg and second guitarist Jesse Parmat.

Bloodshot is releasing a 7-inch single of “Mon Dieu” from the album backed with a live recording of the band covering “Ace of Spades” next month. There will also be a comic book adaptation of the album which was previewed by Paste Magazine here. Truthfully, the ten page sample reminded us that even though we have listened to this album fifty times, we have no idea what the plot of the story is — it looks like the love child of R. Crumb’s Mr. Natural and Joe Sacco’s comic journalism and we love it.

The album was recorded by Alex Hall at Chicago’s Reliable Recorders. In the same studio Hall also captured what we think could justifiably be called one of the most beloved Minnesota records of the decade, the Cactus Blossoms’ You’re Dreaming. In addition, local legend Tommy Stinson served as producer and also contributed a “piano freakout” to the recording. The point is that these guys aren’t from here, but they should be welcomed with open arms.

Boy in a Well is maybe about a half hour long but it moves with an epic sweep in spite of Shomberg’s barrelhouse performance. Cook’s performance is so extraordinary that it is hard to believe there are not a half dozen or more vocalists on this album, and Parmat captures a true sense of everything Americana from Scotty Moore to Poison Ivy. Memorable riffs and motifs blur pass like power poles through the window of a train, and we have been entranced by the album’s epic tour of everything we love about rock and roll and all its bastard cousins.

The song we’ve sampled here is “Mon Nom,” from the second side. We couldn’t pick a favorite song from this album — in fact it was the focus of debate around here. The achingly beautiful “A Visitor is Welcomed” just wasn’t representative, nor was the mad and driven “A Decision is Made,” which precedes it. It’s just a damn good record from beginning to end, which is surprisingly rare these days. You can also hear the sweeping closer “Reunion” in its official music video here. Presumably the Yawpers will be playing many of these songs on Friday night at the 7th Street Entry. Locals the Person and the People will open. Details on the First Avenue website here.

Piñata Records is our favorite local label because they have cultivated a consistent style rooted in retro sounds. Their catalog of soul, garage and pop groups puts a fresh spin on classic American forms without falling into the familiar pitfalls of revival. The label’s two latest releases are from bands we have loved seeing and hearing for years — both were included on our 2016 Live at Hymies compilation album, providing standout performances (here and here). Both albums have been available for a few weeks and have begun a regular rotation here in the record shop.

The first is Temples into Tombs, the second full-length release by Narco States. This album has already earned rave reviews from blogs with names like Faster and Louder and If It’s Too Loud…. Their heavy feature of the farfisa organ leads to inevitable, lazy comparisons to the Doors, but any connection begins and ends there. First of all, Narco States’ sound is grounded in an altogether heavier rhythm section, including bassist Nick Sampson whose key role is largely unsung throughout the praise the band has received for each of its three releases. Second, vocalist Michael MacBlane-Meyer is a far more interesting performer than Jim Morrison. The later is amusingly dismissed as “a drunken buffoon” by Lester Bangs in Almost Famous, and the former is rightfully regarded as Minneapolis’ own answer to Iggy Pop.

The new album has a more intense feel than Wicked Sun, which was released in 2014. There’s a stronger sense of the Stooges but also a wider psychedelic landscape. The tour de force performance of organist Aaron Robertson, who also engineered the recording of Temples into Tombs, doesn’t steal the show. In fact, what’s truly remarkable about their second album is how well the quintet compliment one another and how absolutely seamless the arrangements are. This is as clear in the hook-heavy garage jams “Robin Hood” or “Generation F” as it is in the album’s brooding title track, where MacBlane-Meyer’s spoken performance and Robb Lauer’s blend ancient world mysticism with the anxiety of contemporary despair.

You can check out the entire album for yourself on their Bandcamp page here.

The second new release from Piñata Records is especially welcome because the band is better represented than they were on previous recordings. The Cult of Percolation, previously performing as Mary Allen and her Percolators, has arrived with the release of Elegant Interactions Laboratory. Like Narco States, they’ve earned an enthusiastic review from Faster and Louder, whose Lord Rutledge writes in part,

I can tell you that I’ve never heard a band in my life that sounds quite like The Cult of Percolation – a Minneapolis outfit so “out there” that you just might believe this reallyis a soul band from another galaxy.

We were quick converts to the cause but found their first album proved a hard sell to the unbelievers. Like Narco States, the Cult of Percolation self-recorded their new album, but guitarist Eliot Gordon’s BBQ Laundromat Studio more effectively captured the group’s call-and-response styled vocals and his own part on Elegant Interactions Laboratory. This stands out on the catchy riff which drives “Jessica” and the lighter “Lovin A Van.” As with the Narco States alum, you can hear the whole thing on Bandcamp here.

 

The songs on Elegant Interactions Laboratory are written to be performed live, with backing vocals that have an old time Pentecostal revivalism and the tight arrangements of the Stax revue. The Cult’s sound, and Mary Allen’s dynamism in particular, feel almost constrained in the recording, but that’s part of the magic. The record is only a taste — for the whole thing you’ll have to make a pilgrimage and witness it for yourself.

If it were released on LP as well as CD, we’d put a copy of the new Nooky Jones album in our “Make Out Music” section. The band is playing a two night stand at the Icehouse to celebrate the release of their debut disc, and we recommend you bring someone special if you plan on going — you’ll want to slow dance to closing time come-ons like “You and I” and you’ll want to look lovingly across the table when the band’s star, Cameron Kinghorn, sings in all seriousness lines like “Oh, how can I fall asleep without you there?” and “Girl to me you’re too damn beautiful.”

It’s that sincerity and dedication to form which makes Nooky Jones so surprisingly successful without stumbling into the potential pitfalls of formulaic neo-soul. While the disc has shades of big-name contemporaries like D’Angelo and Thundercat, its warm horns and keyboard sound also recalls eighties soul and jazz. Kinghorn’s sharp elocution is that of a seasoned jazz singer.

It’s in this capacity that he can make a refrain like “I hope she noticed that I noticed her so casually” not only work, but stick with you long after you’ve listened to the last song. Incidentally, you can check out that last one, in the song “Hello,” in a live performance on the Current here. It’s one of the best tracks on the album, but our favorites are the richly romantic “You And I” mentioned earlier, and “Bad Girl,” which contains both the most modern and the most ‘retro’ moments on the disc. The song’s long outro offers a showcase for the band’s horns, who are used with distinct subtlety throughout the album but here are let loose.

Kinghorn was kind enough to drop off a promotional copy of the disc here at the record shop, but it doesn’t include individual credits. If it did we’d be sure to praise the individual performances of the band. It takes a lot of restraint to make such minimal arrangements work so well, and these musicians have made something remarkable in that capacity. In addition to the outstanding horn solos which recall those achingly beautiful late-era Chet Baker performances, the keyboards have a strong foundation in jazz. We thought of Mal Waldron’s European years and in the electric keyboard passages of Ramsey Lewis’ soulful early recordings on the instrument. The whole album is subtly supported by a stellar performance on the drums, which never intrude but often add to the narrative. While Cameron Kinghorn is undeniably the star of the show, the musicianship on this album will knock you out.

Nooky Jones is performing tonight and tomorrow night at the Icehouse. Details on their website here.

In Chris Reimenschneider’s Star Tribune story about the Suicide Commandos new album, out last week, Chris Osgood quipped that the band is “one the one-album-every-39-years-plan. It’s worked well for us so far.” The album’s release also marked a revival of the Twin/Tone label, always a subject of local music lore.

For the Suicide Commandos, who earned more attention for adopting a highway in 2015 than for their reunion recordings on a 10″ split record with the Hold Steady released by the Current a couple years earlier, Time Bomb should merit some much deserved recognition outside of the Twin Cities. Truth is, we might like it even more than that 1978 classic, The Suicide Commandos Make A Record.

The Suicide Commandos were Minnesota’s punk rock pioneers — bands like Hüsker Dü, the Suburbs and the Replacements came in their wake. While the Commandos have said it was the passing of Tommy Erdelyi, the last surviving original Ramone, who inspired their decision to record again, it can’t help but have been influenced by the recent reunions of the ‘Burbs and ‘Mats.

But Time Bomb is everything that Songs for Slim, the hodgepodge Replacements ‘reunion,’ wasn’t. It’s a helluva record you’re proud to put next to those ultra-rare local classics, whereas Songs for Slim is a record you feel stuck with because, well, it was for a good cause. The twelve new Commandos tunes are laden with wry humor and the sort of insight that comes with age, all laid over riffs and hooks most bands would love to add to their repertoire. The trio has been playing occasional shows together for at least a decade, but its still amazing that Time Bomb sounds like the work of a tightly-rehearsed act working a regular gig.

The single was posted on Youtube earlier this year and although it’s not as incendiary as their legendary “Burn it Down” video it sure whet our appetite. And absolutely everything about Time Bomb delivered on the promise.

Any record which cheerfully name-checks the great Dave Ray is going to satisfy us, but its actually the darker descriptions of being in a band (in “Hallelujah Boys” and the small-town bar portrait “Pool Palace Cigar”) which stick to the ribs, if you’ll pardon the expression. The album also offers descriptions of disastrous relationships in Dave Ahl’s brooding “Frogtown,” and the ensemble written “If I Can’t Make You Love Me” (which concludes, naturally, with “I’ll make you hate me”), but its overall impression is sealed by the final two tracks by Steve Almaas and Osgood, respectively.

Time Bomb isn’t an especially political album, but there are unsurprising undertones. Ahl and Osgood performed on the streets during the 2008 R.N.C. protests in St. Paul, after all. The closer, “Late Lost Stolen Mangled Misdirected” is a catchy anthem in the Social Distortion tradition about holding on to some hope even though you may feel all of those things in the title because sometimes “broken things get resurrected.”

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

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