Random record reviews: Hinds, The 1975, Shabaka and the Ancestors

(Above: Shabaka and the Ancestors’ second album, We Are Sent Here by History, is one of the best jazz albums to emerge in several years. It is essential for any serious music fan.)

By Joel Francis

Hinds – The Prettiest Curse

One need only compare the cover of Hinds’ third album, The Prettiest Curse, to their previous albums to notice change is afoot. While the first two covers look like yearbook photos shot in a dark corner of a gymnasium, The Prettiest Curse looks like it came from Glamour Shots.  While the music is similarly polished, it thankfully retains its soul and effervescent fun.

The album is filled with nods to the Strokes, the Breeders and the band’s hometown, Madrid, Spain. Back-to-back standout tracks “Boy” and “Come Back and Love Me <3” not only feature the quartet’s first Spanish lyrics, but an unguarded tenderness. This newfound vulnerability returns a few songs later, on “Take Me Back.”

Fans of Hinds early albums need not worry. They still know how to rock, but by peeling back the garage rock aesthetic, The Prettiest Curse reveals Hinds have considerable songwriting chops as well.

The 1975 – Notes on a Conditional Form

With a running time only slightly shorter than most romantic comedies, the fourth album from Manchester pop rockers The 1975 suggests an overstuffed epic. Instead, Notes on a Conditional Form plays like a manic yet polished playlist, careening from one style to another with little regard to flow.

The seven singles plucked from the album so far have done a good job of cherry-picking the high points, from arena rock and dancefloor pop to a tender acoustic duet and ‘80s pastiche. If that’s not enough, environmental activist Greta Thunberg, a gospel choir, an orchestra and several atmospheric pieces also appear.

There’s enough here that everyone will find at least a few tracks to like, but without a core narrative or flow, the album just ambles along. After 22 songs, Notes doesn’t conclude as much as it stops. It’s an album ripe for selective shopping, but spreading the songs across a surprisingly succinct four sides of vinyl, creates mini playlists. These smaller doses work in the album’s favor and make for a more enjoyable listen.

Shabaka and the Ancestors – We Are Sent Here By History

In the 1960s, Impulse Records was responsible for releasing some of the most incendiary and forward-leaning albums by John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders. The spirit of those recordings thrives on Impulse’s latest release, the second album by Shabaka and the Ancestors. The 11 cuts on We Are Sent Here By History are filled with a sense of urgency and vitality that make them the perfect soundtrack to our tension-filled time.

Quite simply, there are no songs or even bad moments on this album. Imagine Kamasi Washington spiked with Afro-beat and the best elements of those ‘60s Impulse releases and you’re close. We Are Sent By History is an essential addition to any music library.

Social Distancing Spins – Day 60

By Joel Francis

The Byrds – Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968) Did you ever stop to think that maybe the biggest difference between country and rock and roll is marketing? I’m not saying fans of Sleep or Deafhaven are likely to warm up to Garth Brooks, or vice versa, but music is littered with crossover artists, from Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins to Aaron Lewis and Darius Rucker. Elvis Presley may have started the trend, debuting on Sun Records with music that was equal parts rock, country and blues. In the post-monoculture landscape where streaming reigns supreme, genre distinctions mean even less. Bret Michaels, Jon Bon Jovi and Lionel Richie can tour as country artists while performers who started in the country bucket like Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood can move seamlessly into being pop stars. And honestly, what is the difference between Sheryl Crow and Miranda Lambert? Or Kid Rock and herpes? Sorry, that was a low blow, but I couldn’t resist.

I bring all this up, because in 1968 these distinctions were a very big deal. The Byrds upset a lot of people when they performed on the Grand Ole Opry. Their hippie hair was too long for the Nashville crowd and their music too twangy for the hippies. The group was banned from the Opry when they dared to deviate from the prearranged setlist. Oh, the humanity! Instead, the band nearly broke up, with new recruit Gram Parsons leaving first. Bass player Chris Hillman and drummer Kevin Kelley, another short-timer left at the end of the year, with Hillman joining up with Parsons in the Flying Burrito Brothers. As usual, Byrds founder Roger McGuinn was left to pick up the pieces and assemble another formation of the Byrds. McGuinn’s group released another six albums before packing it in. None approach the influence of Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Parsons and Hillman used Sweetheart as a stepping stone, building a musical empire that spawned not only mainstream successes like Eagles and the outlaw country movement. That legacy is still obvious today in the music of Lucinda Williams, Sturgil Simpson and the Highwomen.

Ghostface Killah – Fishscale (2006) The prolific Wu-Tang Clan MC Ghostface Killah drops so many albums, pseudo-albums/mixtapes and collaborations it can be daunting to separate the wheat from the chaff. Fishscale, Ghostface’s fifth album is a gritty masterpiece. Ghostface has an amazing eye for detail, making ever scenario across the album crackle to life like a short film or story. Production from Doom, Just Blaze, Pete Rock and J Dilla make the songs both accessible and memorable. Vignettes about drug deals, street life and women blur together to create a cinematic 65-minute arc. Check out the image this paints from the song “Kilo”: “A hundred birds go out, looking like textbooks/When they wrapped and stuffed/Four days later straight cash, two million bucks.” Or this childhood memory from “Whip You With a Strap”: “(T)hen came Darryl Mack lightin’ all the reefer up/Baby caught a contact, I’m trying to tie my sneaker up/I’m missing all the loops, strings going in the wrong holes/It feels like I’m wobbling, look at all these afros.”

Someone once said that Bruce Springsteen songs don’t begin and end as much as they zoom in a focus on a story, then gradually fade back out. Ghostface’s storytelling is easily on that same level for Fishscale. Along the way, the gets help from several members from the Wu-Tang Clan. The entire Clan assembles for “9 Milli Bros” and Ne-Yo pops by to sing the hook on “Back Like That,” a Top 20 Hot R&B hit. Even with these assists, Fishscale is Ghostface’s triumph and should be part of every hip hop library.

Batfangs – self-titled (2018) The women in Batfang live in a universe where Van Halen and Def Leppard are indie rock icons. The nine songs on the duo’s debut album, all written by singer/guitarist Betsy Wright, with some help from drummer Laura King, pay tribute to the 1980s hair band anthems that continue to provide atmosphere in Trams Ams and strip clubs today. At just 25 minutes, Batfangs know how to love ‘em and leave ‘em. Two years on, I’m hoping their album wasn’t just a one-night stand.

Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble – Couldn’t Stand the Weather (1984) It’s hard to believe that Stevie Ray Vaughan gifted fans with three studio albums and a live record – the majority of his catalog – in less time than a presidential term. Couldn’t Stand the Weather was Double Trouble’s second album and if it feels like a disappointment after their debut Texas Flood, it is only because Texas Flood claimed so much territory. Lightning-fast guitar heroics can only be a surprise one time. After that, they are expected.

Vaughan didn’t write many songs for this album, but the ones he did are gems. The white hot instrumental “Scuttle Buttin’” sets up the title song, another original, nicely. Vaughan also wrote the last two songs on the album. “Stag’s Swang,” the last number, shows off another tool in Vaughan’s formidable arsenal – jazz guitar.

The four covers are all spectacular. Vaughan owns Jimi Hendrix’ “Voodoo Child (Slight Return).” The slow blues “Tin Pan Alley” couldn’t be more different from the Hendrix cover, but Vaughan is right at home there, too. “Cold Shot” was released as a single and became a Top 40 rock radio hit.

Couldn’t Stand the Weather clocks in at eight tracks and slightly less than 40 minutes. This might make the Weather seem slight in the shadow of Texas Flood, but it remains an indispensable chapter in the book of a consummate blues man that ended way too early.

Social Distancing Spins – Day 59

By Joel Francis

Charles Mingus – The Clown (1957) Jazz bass legend Charles Mingus’ second album for the Atlantic label was also his second masterpiece in a row. There are only four songs on The Clown, but as with any Mingus release, they leave plenty to unpack. The Clown opens with a Mingus bass solo before the rest of the band joins in on “Haitian Fight Song.” Mingus described the song as a contemporary folk number, but it reminds me of Jimmy Smith’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” the way the song starts simply before the horns swagger into the forefront. “Bee Cee” is a piano-driven blues number. Side two opens with “Reincarnation of a Lovebird,” Mingus’ tribute to Charlie Parker. You can hear different pieces of Parker’s melodies fly past in the song. Mingus revisited this song several times throughout his career. The title track concludes the album. Actor Jean Shepherd – who narrated and co-wrote the film A Christmas Story based on his life – tells the story of a clown who worked hard to please everyone but wasn’t appreciated until after his death. Mingus said the clown was meant to be a stand-in for jazz musicians. There’s a lot going on for an album that lasts a scant 28 minutes, but Mingus always rewards repeated listens.

Buddy Miles Express – Electric Church (1969) Former Electric Flag drummer Buddy Miles got an incredible assist on his second solo album from guitarist Jimi Hendrix. At the time, Hendrix was expanding the Experience to incorporate the players that would become the Gypsy Sun and Rainbows group that performed at Woodstock. Somewhere around this time, Miles was asked to join Hendrix’ new trio Band of Gypsys. Before that, however, Hendrix produced half the songs on Electric Church and played on several cuts as well. Putting aside the long shadow Hendrix casts over this album, Electric Church is a good slice of R&B. The horns on the first cut, “Miss Lady” wouldn’t have been out of place on a Stax release (and place Hendrix’ wah-wah guitar solo in a unique context). Hendrix’ fingerprints are also all over “69 Freedom Song.” The Memphis soul connection is made more explicit on Miles’ cover of Otis Redding’s “Cigarettes and Coffee” and a live version of Isaac Hayes and David Porter’s “Wrap It Up.” Side two kicks off with “Texas,” a slow blues number written with former Electric Flag bandmate Mike Bloomfield. There might not be enough guitar pyrotechnics to entice Hendrix fans to sit through the entire album. Likewise, fans of soul music might be put off by the acidic rock explorations. Somewhere between the two camps, however, Miles was able to carve out a nice little niche.

Van Morrison – A Period of Transition (1977) Van Morrison’s ninth album certainly lives up to the title. The gypsy soul that characterized early albums like Tupelo Honey and Moondance was coming to a close, but the jazzier, lengthier contemplations exemplified on Common One and Beautiful Vision had not yet arrived. Pianist Dr. John plays on every track here and co-produced the album, giving the songs his native New Orleans shuffle, particularly on the swampy opener “You Gotta Make It Through the World.” The single “Joyous Sound” shares a spirit and feel with “Domino.” Elsewhere, “Flamingos Fly” and “Heavy Connection” point to the jazzy, adult contemporary direction Morrison would later take on Avalon Sunset and Poetic Champions Compose in the late 1980s. The intro to “It Feels You Up” sounds like something from Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, but the song remained a concert staple for decades. Of most interest to this Cowtown boy is “The Eternal Kansas City.” A gospel choir carries the meat of the melody while Morrison namechecks Charlie Parker, Count Basie, Jay McShan and other local luminaries. Incidentally, everyone Morrison honors in the verse was still alive at the time, except for saxmen Bird and Lester Young. Morrison must have liked “The Eternal Kansas City” enough to re-record it with Gregory Porter on his 2015 album Duets: Reworking the Catalog. A Period of Transition is far from essential, but dedicated Morrison fans will want this to see how he got from A to B.

Rare Earth – Get Ready (1969) The late 1960s were the time of meandering hard rock epics that encompass an entire album side, like “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.” After transforming the landscape of pop music with their Motor City soul, Motown decided it wanted a slice of this acid rock pie as well. Get Ready contains five other songs, including covers of “Tobacco Road” and Traffic’s “Feelin’ Alright,” in addition to the title song, but the 21-minute cut on the second side is clearly the selling point. These types of lengthy, meandering jams aren’t really my thing, but the live audience on the album is eating it up. I don’t think the band is saying anything with the album version that they don’t articulate on the two minute, 50 second single. Then again, I’ve never dropped acid or seen a show at the Fillmore. If you like drum solos or extended organ parts, this is for you. Meanwhile, I’ll be over here with the Temptations.

Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile – Lotta Sea Lice (2017) The prolific Kurt Vile had been releasing laid-back, guitar-centric indie rock albums for nearly a decade when the Australian songwriter Courtney Barnett dropped her debut album. Barnett has a knack for inserting little details into her lyrics that tie her songs together without appearing like she’s trying too hard. In other words, she and Vile shared a laconic approach to songwriting and guitar skills that outpace the songs each write. For their first album together, Barnett and Vile create a level of relaxed comfort where they are able to swap lines like “What time do you usually wake up?/Depends on what time I sleep” (on “Let It Go”) without coming across as lazy or phoning it in. At just nine songs and 45 minutes, Lotta Sea Lice knows not to overstay its welcome. Hopefully we’ll get another collaboration at some point down the road.

Old 97s – Graveyard Whistling (2017) On their previous album, the Texas alt-country quartet turned their amps up and returned to their roots with the raw, profane Most Messed Up. The band appeared to be at a crossroads heading into Graveyard Whistling, their 11th album. While the production is slicker and the songwriting is less self-referential, the 97s are still fully committed to having as good a time tonight as possible and dodging the consequences of it tomorrow. Singer Rhett Miller acknowledges as much on “Bad Luck Charm,” the jig “Irish Whiskey Pretty Girls, the lonesome “Turns Out I’m Trouble” and the bloody “Drinkin’ Song.” Elsewhere, the boys turn theology into a pickup line on “Jesus Loves You” (sample lyric: “He makes wine from water/but I just bought you a beer”), stare into the afterlife with the help of Brandi Carlyle on “Good With God,” and wax nostalgic on “Those Were the Days.” Ultimately, Graveyard Whistling isn’t as essential as Most Messed Up, but it is a very good album from a band with a great run.

Social Distancing Spins – Days 56-58

By Joel Francis

Radiohead – Hail to the Thief (2003) Radiohead’s sixth album is only disappointing in context. After blowing everyone’s minds with the Kid A/Amnesiac companion albums, musical expectations were ratcheted to the stratosphere to expect the unexpected. When the band revealed the album’s title, disenfranchised liberals hoped for a political burn that would send a person who occupied the White House despite losing the majority of the votes and his ginned-up war scurrying back to Texas. Spoiler: Neither happened.

Instead fans were treated to an album where guitars are played like guitars, drums are played by an actual human being and songs follow a conventional verse-chorus-verse structure. The band hasn’t turned the amps up this loudly and rocked out since Thief, which makes singles “2+2=5” and “There There” seem even more momentous in retrospect. Meanwhile, “The Gloaming” and “Backdrifts” nod to the Kid A/Amnesiac era. Nearly two decades on, it is easier to enjoy Thief for what it is and soak up its rich rewards.

Red Garland Trio – Groovy (1957) Confession: I bought this album based entirely on the cover art and the cred pianist Red Garland built playing in the Miles Davis quintet with John Coltrane. Paul Chambers and Art Taylor, the rhythm section for this album, were also members of Davis’ group. So what you have here is Davis’ band, minus the horns. Because they performed together so often, the trio are able to swap lines and support each other without breaking a sweat. The songs consist of standards, such as “Willow Weep for Me,” pop songs like “Will You Still Be Mine” and an original Garland blues, “Hey Now.” It might not be an ambitious selection, but the results are superb. In this case, my instincts served me well. Groovy is a 40 swinging minutes of amazing piano jazz.

A.C. Newman – Get Guilty (2009) The engine behind the New Pornographers gives himself a little more space to stretch out on this solo album. There are still tons of big hooks and bright power pop melodies, but Carl Newman sounds more relaxed and confessional here. Get Guilty is the second of Newman’s three solo albums to date and the fact that he still has the ability to craft these albums while doing the majority of the songwriting for the New Pornographers speaks to his prolific pen. Tellingly, Newman hasn’t released a solo album since Dan Bejar, the other songwriter in the Pornographers left the group. However, I have little doubt that Newman will lay another beauty on us at some point, and it will be worth the wait.

Bob Dylan – Live 1975: The Bootleg Series, Volume 5 (2002) Well before the sleight-of-hand Netflix documentary, Bob Dylan gifted his fans with this gift of the best moments from the first leg of his Rolling Thunder Revue tour. The performances are comfortably ragged and delightful. The set charges hard out of the gate with three reworked, electric numbers. “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” tears like a locomotive. “It Ain’t Me Babe” sways like a gypsy waltz. Best of all is a hurtling “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” If Dylan was a prophet standing on the city wall, warning the people below on the original acoustic version, here he is Paul Revere, tearing through the countryside, shouting his message. The rest of the music isn’t as revelatory, but fantastic. The ensemble airs performs two-thirds of Desire, Dylan’s most recent album, including “Sara,” an autobiographical love song to his wife, with her listening from just off-stage. The acoustic material and duets with Joan Baez are fine, but nowhere near as intimate as what crowds were treated to on the first set of the 1966 tour documented on Bootleg Volume Four, or the 1964 show documented on Bootleg Volume Six. That said, Live 1975 is not only an essential Dylan document but a fun listen. I turn to it often.

Husker Du – Savage Young Du, LP2 (compilation) The second album from Numero’s four-record collection of early Husker Du starts with the band’s first single and features many unreleased live tracks recorded at various Minneapolis clubs in 1980. You can hear the songwriting start to sharpen a bit here as the music remains at full volume and throttle.  We discussed other albums in this eye-opening box set on Day 3 and Day 40.

Yo La Tengo – I Am Not Afraid of You and Will Beat Your Ass (2006) The New Jersey-based indie rockers have made a great career combining long noisy adventures with intimate ballads. For their 11th album, the noisy tracks bookend the shorter, poppier numbers. The nearly 11-minute opener “Pass the Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind” sizzles on James McNew’s bassline. From there, I Am Not Afriad hops from the horn-driven pop of “Beanbag Chair” to the falsetto of “Mr. Tough” and through a few other songs before landing on the nine-minute, soothing ambience of “Daphina” almost halfway through. At 15 songs and 77 minutes, I Am Not Afraid sometimes feels too long, but none of the songs are filler. Think of it like an album with a bonus EP buried in the playlist. If you haven’t heard Yo La Tengo, this is as good a place to start as any.

Social Distancing Spins, Day 1

By Joel Francis

The coronavirus pandemic has taken a lot of things away, but one thing it has provided me in abundance is plenty of extra time at home. I decided to make the most of my social distancing by doing a deep dive through my album collection. As the turntable spun, I was inspired to write about what I heard.

My intent is to provide brief snippets about each day’s albums. I understand that many of these classic recordings deserve lengthy posts on their own, but since we will be covering a lot of ground here I will try to remain brisk and on point. Ready? Let’s get to it.

Black Sabbath – Heaven and Hell (1980) Sabbath’s first half-dozen albums are rightly canonical. Heaven and Hell isn’t as groundbreaking but every bit as enjoyable as those classic platters. Sadly, the Ronnie James Dio era of Sabbath is mostly remembered by headbangers these days. This is the only Sabbath album I own, but I look forward to someday adding Mob Rules to the collection.

Hot Water Music – Light It Up (2017) – Playing the most recent album from the veteran Florida rock band was intended to wet my whistle for their concert at the RecordBar, scheduled just a few days away. Alas, like everything else on the horizon it was moved forward on the calendar until a hopefully calmer time. With a name swiped from Charles Bukowski and a sound like gasoline arguing with barbed wire the show is guaranteed to be a winner whenever it is held.

The Hold Steady – Heaven is Whenever (2010) This was my least-favorite Hold Steady album when it was released and I confess I haven’t played it as much as the albums that preceded and followed it. I thought the departure of multi-instrumentalist Franz Nicolay left too much of a hole in their sound, though the band sounded great when I saw them on this tour. Playing it now, I don’t think I gave Heaven is Whenever is enough credit at the time. It’s not a masterpiece on the scale of Boys and Girls in America and not as fierce as Teeth Dreams but there are some freaking fine moments, including “Our Whole Lives,” buried at the end of side two.

Bruce Springsteen – Born in the U.S.A. (1984) What can be said about this landmark that hasn’t been said before? To be fair, this album was a request from my five-year-old son who loves “Dancing in the Dark” thanks to E Street Radio. “Dancing” is the next-to-last track, meaning he exposed to 10 other great tunes while waiting for his favorite number. Hopefully a few more of them will stick, although I’m not sure I want him singing “I’m on Fire” quite yet.

The Yawpers – American Man (2015) This Denver-based trio fits in well on Bloodshot’s roster of alt-country acts. Songwriter Nate Cook’s early 21st-centry examination of the U.S. of A. plays like a road trip. On songs like “9 to 5,” “Kiss It” and “Walter” they sound like Uncle Tupelo being chased through the Overlook Hotel by Jack Torrance.

The Highwomen – self-titled (2019) I toured the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville a few years ago. I was fascinated by the museum until the timeline reached the late 1980s. After Dwight Yoakam and Steve Earle came on the scene, mainstream country and I quickly parted ways. The four songwriters in Highwomen are trying to reclaim popular country music on their own terms. Many, many great artists have tried to bend Music City to their tastes only to retreat exhausted. The best of them found Music Row sucking up to their pioneering sound only after it became popular. My guess is that the Highwomen will follow this same route, but they are so good you can’t rule out they will be the ones to finally break the stale, chauvinistic stockade.

(I say this and then notice that I’ve namedropped two male country stars in this piece without mentioning any of the female members of the Highwomen. Sigh. Please forgive me, Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires, Natalie Hemby and Maren Morris.)

Jamila Woods – Legacy! Legacy! (2019) The Ivy League-educated neo-soul songstress focuses on the small to show us the large on her second album. Each of the thirteen tracks focus on an important black artists – Nikki Giovanni, Eartha Kitt, Jean-Michel Basquiat – explore what it means to be black in America today. What sounds like an academic thesis is actually a good dance album, thanks to a soundscape that slides between jazz, soul, hip hop, Afro-beat and even touches of EDM.

Jeff Tweedy – Together at Last (2017) Thanks to the film “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” Jeff Tweedy’s bands Uncle Tupelo and Wilco barely made it into the mainstream before the monoculture collapsed and the entertainment world splintered into a million micro-genres and sects. The eleven songs performed here are stripped of all wonky production and distilled to voice and guitar. They are still amazing.

Joni Mitchell – Ladies of the Canyon (1970) Joni Mitchell’s work in the 1970s is every bit as good as Neil Young’s and even better than Bob Dylan’s. This album finds Mitchell branching out by adding more instruments to the guitar-and-voice arrangements found on her first two albums. The jazz clarinet solo at the end of “For Free” gets me every time. Three of Mitchell’s biggest songs are tucked at the end of side two. “Big Yellow Taxi” and “Woodstock” set up “The Circle Game,” a look at mortality than never fails to leave me feeling deeply blue.

Ian Hunter – You’re Never Alone with a Schizophrenic (1979) Ringo’s All-Starr Band isn’t the place for deep cuts, so I knew when Ian Hunter was listed as the guitar player for the 2001 tour I held a ticket for, I knew I was going to hear “Cleveland Rocks.” The only problem was the show was in St. Louis, so it didn’t really work. That’s Hunter’s catalog in a nutshell for me. All the right ingredients are there on paper and I get excited about hearing the albums when I read the reviews, but they never fully click with me. His releases are so plentiful in the used bins and priced so cheaply I keep giving them a shot hoping the next one will be The One.

Bear Hands – Fake Tunes (2019) Another play anticipating a performance that was cancelled. They descending keyboard part on “Blue Lips” reminds me of a good appropriation of Vampire Weekend’s first album (that’s a compliment). The overall vibe sends me to the same place as Beck’s “Guero” and “The Information” albums.

Thom Yorke – Susperia (2018) I’m not sure we needed a remake of Susperia, the 1977 Italian horror classic, but I’m glad it gave us Thom Yorke’s moody score. Trading his laptop for a piano, the Radiohead frontman provides 80 minutes of spare, melancholy instrumentals. The few vocal tracks make you wish there were more.

Yorke performed in Kansas City, Mo., less than two months after Susperia’s release, but ignored his latest album until the final song of the night. His performance of Unmade alone at the keyboard was the perfect benediction for a skittery night of electronic music.

Jack White and the Bricks – Live on the Garden Bowl Lanes: 1999 (2013)

The Go – Whatcha Doin’ (1999) These albums both arrived courtesy of the Third Man Records Vault and were recorded around the same time. Jack White was always a man of a million projects. When Meg was unavailable for a White Stripes show he grabbed some buddies – including future Raconteur Brendan Benson and Dirtbombs drummer Ben Blackwell – for a set including a couple songs that would become Stripes staples, a pair of Bob Dylan covers and a song by ? and the Mysterians (not 96 Tears). The sound is a little rough but the performance is solid.

The debut album from The Go, Whatcha Doin’ is hefty slab of garage rock guaranteed to put a smile on your face. Jack White plays guitar and co-writes a couple songs, but this isn’t his show. He left the band shortly after the album came out, but there was no animosity. In 2003, The Go opened several shows for the White Stripes in the United Kingdom.

Syl Johnson – We Do It Together (compilation) This is the sixth platter in the amazing Complete Mythology box set released by the Numero Group in 2010.The material starts in 1970 and ends in 1977, omitting the time Johnson spent with Hi Records. Never lacking in self-confidence, Johnson frequently claimed he was every bit as good as James Brown and Al Green. Although he doesn’t have their notoriety, Johnson’s albums could easily slip into a DJ set of those soul masters.

Review: Banks and Steelz

(Above: The RZA and Paul Banks tear down the Tank Room in Kansas City, Mo. with “Giant.” The frenetic performance literally had the floor shaking.) 

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

As the guitarist and singer for Interpol and mastermind behind the Wu-Tang Clan, Paul Banks and the RZA, a.k.a. Bobby Steelz, have filled and commanded spaces far bigger than the intimate Tank Room. Wednesday night, the duo treated a sold-out crowd to a masterful mashup of indie rock and hip-hop.

The seemingly disparate musical approaches have driven each artist to deliver some of their best work. On party tracks like “Sword in the Stone,” Banks’ soulful indie rock chorus played off RZA’s aggressive verses. Other times, formula reversed itself when RZA’s insistent contribution punctuated Banks moody vocals.

banks-steelzThe hourlong set comprised all but one song of the duo’s debut album, and ignored their other groups. The night started with the soulful yet ominous “Point of View” before exploding with “Ana Electronic.” Fans may not have been able to sing every word, but they had no problem swaying to the beat.

The room reached fever pitch with “Giant,” the album’s lead track, which has been generating airplay and online buzz. As Banks sang “everything is shaking through the walls” on the chorus, the floor was literally pulsing with the rhythms of everyone dancing.

RZA took the stage holding a large bottle of vodka. After several liberal pulls, he distributed cups along the front row and filled them before passing the bottle into the crowd. Later in the show, he popped open a bottle of champagne and sprayed the room.

A woman on the front row and her companion were singled out by RZA to set up “Can’t Hardly Feel,” a song about loving someone who belongs to another.

While the RZA had the flash and energy to command attention, it was in moments like this that Banks quietly stole the spotlight. His plaintive tenor drove not only “Can’t Hardly Feel,” but the philosophical “One by One” and the potent “Speedway Sonora.”

Walkmen drummer Matt Barrick supported the duo, turning the group into an all-star trio. His tight bossa nova rhythms anchored the song “Wild Season” and showed why RZA later called him the human drum machine. The three stretched out instrumentally only once, during “Conceal,” when Banks’ lengthy guitar solo gave way to RZA’s keyboard/organ.

Setlist: Point of View, Ana Electronic, Love and War, Sword in the Stone, Wild Season, Conceal, Speedway Sonora, One By One, Can’t Hardly Feel, Giant, Anything but Words.

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Review: Local Natives

(Above: Local Natives embrace “Villany,” one of several standout tunes performed during a swift, damp autumn concert at Crossroads KC in Kansas City, Mo.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

With thunderstorms looming on the Doppler radar Saturday night, indie rockers Local Natives took the stage ahead of schedule and wrapped up before the weather portion of the local news aired. No umbrellas were needed.

Crossroads KC was about a third full, with most of the crowd standing comfortably in front of the sound tent.

0926 rev local natives 0924The Southern California quartet expertly generates songs that serve as atmospheric pieces with anthemic vocals. Their sound recalls the National and Fleet Foxes, with a splash of Radiohead and Talking Heads. Electronic textures compliment the soaring, earnest vocals and make the music both easy to dance to and sing with.

The versatile musicians traded roles frequently throughout the night, performing in front of a white curtain, frequently backlit and visible only as silhouettes. The lighting was even more dramatic when the wind whipped through the curtain.

While the scope was cinematic, the songs were compact. It took the band just 80 minutes to deliver 17 songs. “Coins” opened with a funky stop-start rhythm that lifted a lot of hands into the air. Opening act Charlotte Day Wilson joined the band for a duet of “Dark Days.” She danced at her mic between verses, relishing the moment.

One of the night’s most powerful moments came on “Colombia.” Accompanied only by his guitar and Taylor Rice on piano, Kelcey Ayer sang about his mother’s death. The somber moment hovered as the rest of the band returned to the stage for the crescendo.

Somehow, that number segued into “Fountain of Youth,” a poppy new song that references a female president and bounces with a chorus of “We can do whatever we want.” Although the songs were polar opposites, the journey was flawless.

Local Natives’ third album, “Sunlit Youth” was released a little more than two weeks ago, but the crowd seemed familiar with the material. Several of its songs — including “Villany” — drew generous responses. The set list was pretty much split between new songs and material from “Hummingbird,” the group’s second album. A few songs from their 2009 debut were included for good measure.

One of those early songs ended the night on discordant and satisfying note. With Nik Ewing’s bass galloping over noisy guitars, “Sun Hands” recalled “Boy”-era U2. The most boisterous and least contained number of the night ended with low feedback — and rainclouds — hanging in the air as the band waved goodnight.

Setlist: Past Lives; Wide Eyes; Villany; You and I; Breakers; Mother Emmanuel; Airplanes; Ceilings; Heavy Feet; Coins; Dark Days (with Charlotte Day Wilson); Masters; Colombia; Fountain of Youth; Who Knows Who Cares. Encore:Sea of Years; Sun Hands.

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Review: TV on the Radio

Middle of the Map 2013

Review: Devotchka

 

Review: TV on the Radio

(Above: TV on the Radio perform “Could You,” a song from their newest album, on March 21, 2015, at the Midland Theater in Kansas City, Mo.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

TV on the Radio is no stranger to Kansas City. Nearly eight years ago to the day, the indie rock band delivered a transcendent performance at the Voodoo Lounge. They have returned twice since then, in support of their subsequent two releases.

Saturday night, the Brooklyn-based, indie rock band played at the Midland theater, their largest venue in town to date, in front of their biggest crowd.

The first five songs of the night all came from “Seeds,” the band’s latest album. They would return to it again twice more, and also perform a non-album single drawn from those sessions. A red strobe light enveloped the stage during opening number “Lazerray,” making the band look like a stop-motion video from the future.

Later, the red, green and yellow beams of light crossing the stage during the “Seeds”’ title track recalled the album’s cover. The chorus on that song sounds like a lost African proverb: “Rain comes down like it always does/This time I’ve got seeds on ground.” As singer Tunde Adebimpe repeated the uplifting message, the music slowly built in intensity, threatening to overwhelm the room.

Musically, TV on the Radio can be hard to pin down. At times they can sound like Peter Gabriel, as on set-closer “Staring at the Sun,” or Radiohead, or Joy Division. While there are some obvious touchstones — Bono would kill for the silky falsetto guitarist/vocalist Kyp Malone used on “Million Miles” — TV’s sound is generally too mercurial for a game of spot-the-influence. They are clearly pointing the way forward more than they are looking back.

The stage was set simply, with no screens or effects aside from the light show. Though frontman Adebimpe was energetic, the core quartet and touring drummer and keyboard/horn player stayed in place. Arranger/producer/jack-of-all-trades Dave Sitek stood at stage left behind a table of gadgets and next to a bank of synthesizers. He rotated between guitar and the rest of his tricks like the man behind the curtain.

Although the show was skimpy on older numbers (and questionably skimpy in general at just 15 songs and 80 minutes), predictably they were the ones that drew the biggest response.

“Wolf Like Me” inspired a feral sing-along. For the encore, the band went back to its two earliest singles, “Young Liars” and “Staring at the Sun.” Neither could be described as inspiring, but it was moving to hear the room come together in one voice.

If we are fortunate, TV on the Radio will return again in a couple years, with a new batch of songs to perform. We will miss the older numbers they displace, but not too much. After 15 years and six albums, they remain a band on the rise, with no horizon in sight.

Setlist: Lazerray, Golden Age, Happy Idiot, Seeds, Could You, Wolf Like Me, Trouble, Million Miles, Blues from Down Here, Winter, Dancing Choose, Love Dog, DLZ. Encore: Young Liars, Staring at the Sun.

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Review: Best Coast

(Above: Best Coast perform “No One Like You” at the Granada Theater in Lawrence, Kan., on May 26, 2012.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

The backdrop depicted a large bear embracing the state of California, a nice metaphor for the music emanating just a few yards closer. For 75 minutes Sunday night at the Granada, indie-pop duo Best Coast showcased the many of the Golden State’s finest musical attributes: girl groups, surf guitars and bubbly pop melodies about summer and love.

The band makes a strong case for being their home state’s finest musical ambassadors since the Beach Boys. Opening number “The Only Place,” the title track to their recently released sophomore album, set the stage. “We’ve got the ocean/got the babes/got the sun/got the waves,” Beth Cosentino sang over jangly guitars. “So leave your cold behind/we’re gonna make it to the beach on time.”
The sun is usually out in Cosentino’s musical world, but not always in her heart. Her lyrics are direct and confessional, often reading like diary entries about lost, misplaced or inconvenient love. The band’s 2010 debut had a lo-fi feel that added to the intimacy of her words. Onstage, the twosome of Cosentino and guitarist Bobb Bruno are touring with a bass player for the first time. Combined with a new drummer, they finally had a live rhythm section that adds muscle and potency to the music.The bass added depth to the sound and gave Bruno more freedom on his guitar. The drumming enhanced the sense of desperation in “Why I Cry” and gave urgency to “Angsty.”Cosentino’s pop memoirs of longing came tumbling one after another. The set list comprised nearly all of “The Only Place,” more than half of their debut “Crazy For You” and a handful of singles. The whole room was dancing for the bouncy pairing of “Let’s Go Home” and “Our Deal,” but the slower material went over just as well thanks to Cosentino’s captivating voice. An emotional cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Storms” hinted at the direction Cosentino’s songwriting may be headed. It covered the same romantic terrain, but boasted more lyrical maturity and depth.

Cosentino and Bruno clearly aren’t tired of playing “Boyfriend,” their breakout hit. Cosentino threw herself into the delivery, nearly growling the words “how I want him.” The pair were all smiles throughout the one-two of early singles “When I’m With You” and “Boyfriend” that ended the night.

Just as Best Coast benefited away from the blistering sun and heat that capsized their mid-day slot at Kanrocksas last summer, opener Jeff the Brotherhood was better suited for the Granada than the cavernous Midland Theater, where they opened for the Kills last winter.

The sibling duo from Nashville’s half-hour set was driven by guitarist Jake Orrall’s 3-string, hybrid guitar. The axe featured a Gibson body and bass neck and was filtered, flanged and phased about every way imaginable, often sounding like Black Sabbath’s meeting with Swamp Thing. The high point of their set was “I’m a Freak,” a straight-up, classic rock guitar jam in the vein of “Stranglehold.”

Setlist: The Only Place, Last Year, Angsty, Summer Mood, Goodbye, Crazy For You, Sun Don’t Shine, No One Like You, How They Want Me To Be, Why I Cry, Mean Girls, Dreaming My Life Away, Let’s Go Home, Our Deal, Do You Love Me Like You Used To, Up All Night. Encore: I Want To, Sun Was High, Storms (Fleetwood Mac cover), When I’m With You, Boyfriend.

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Review: Andrew Bird

Review: Best Coast and Kanrocksas Music Fest

Review: Devotchka

Review: Andrew Bird

(Above: Andrew Bird and his band break into some bluegrass at the Uptown Theater in Kansas City, Mo., on March 23, 2012.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Indie rock singer/songwriter Andrew Bird told the crowd at the Uptown Theater on Friday night that this was his first “proper” show in Kansas City. The statement conveniently overlooks his 2007 opening slot for Wilco at Crossroads, but in a way it was true. Bird flew solo opening for Wilco – Friday he had a full band.

When an artist can call on as many musical talents as Bird – who plays violin, guitar and glockenspiel and sings and whistles – it begs the question of what an ensemble can bring to an already rich arrangement.Bird started both the main set and the encore alone, showcasing his considerable talents. The hallmark of Bird’s one-man-band performances was how he layered and looped his plucked, strummed and bowed violin to create a singular orchestra. With those elements and his virtuosic violin talents front and center, “Carrion Suite” felt a bit like a recital.

As the band entered during “Nyatiti” each musician gradually revealed what he could bring to an already full table. Alan Hampton’s bowed upright bass at the end of “Desperation Breeds …” coupled with Bird’s violin to create psychedelic chamber music. His electric bass playing paired nicely with Bird’s loops to add extra urgency and muscle to several songs, including a dynamic “Plasticities.”

Guitarist Jeremy Ylvisaker rarely took a solo, but added great texture and feeling, especially on “Lusitania.” At times, the dimensions of plucked violins created the same kind of percussive atmosphere favored by Paul Simon. Drummer Martin Dosh had no trouble enhancing and playing off those polyrhythms.

Despite all the musical elements happening at once, the sound was pristine, with each instrument clear and distinct throughout the night. An impressive light show enhanced each performance. As a series of lights cascaded over the crowd, the four abstract sculptures hanging over the stage looked like flames, whisps of smoke or clouds depending on the mood.

The 100-minute set drew heavily from this year’s “Break It Yourself” album. The night ended with a sound impossible to replicate alone, as Bird, Ylvisaker and Hampton played crowded around one mic. Their acoustic instruments and vocal harmonies blended masterfully on the dark “So Much Wine” and hopeful “I’m Goin’ Home.”

Setlist: Carrion Suite > Nyatiti, Danse Carribe, Desperation Breeds …, Measuring Cups, Fitz and the Dizzyspells, Give It Away, Eyeoneye, Near Death Experience Experience, Lusitania, Orpheo Looks Back, Scythian Empires, Plasticities, Tables and Chairs > Fake Palindromes. Encore: Dr. Stringz, So Much Wine (Handsome Family cover); I’m Goin’ Home (Charley Patton cover).

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