Social Distancing Spins – Day 32

By Joel Francis

Today’s entry puts us at 200 albums in the quarantined exploration of my record collection. Don’t worry, there is still more than enough to keep us busy until well after a COVID-19 vaccine is discovered and dispersed.

Wilco – Sky Blue Sky (2007) It took a while for Sky Blue Sky to grow on me. I admit I was pretty underwhelmed at first. I had seen Wilco several times in support of their previous album and was expecting something raw and bleeding based on those shows. What I got was considerably more mellow and gentle. Once I got past my expectations, I was able to appreciate what Wilco had crafted, rather than what I thought they should have done. Guess who had the better vision.

Many of Sky Blue Sky’s finest moments have become concert favorites. “Impossible Germany” is a great showcase for guitarist Nels Cline’s formidable talents, while “Shake It Off” provides an opportunity for the band to show off their tight-but-loose jam chops. My favorite song is “Hate It Here,” a deceptively cheery song about a person learning to live without a longtime partner. The Wilco catalog is stocked with great albums, but Sky Blue Sky makes a sleeper case for being one of the best of the bunch.

Scott H. Biram – The Bad Testament (2017) Scott H. Biram is like hearing a preacher who got caught doing something dirty and decided to go whole hog down the dark path. A one-man band, Biram sits at the crossroads of folk, blues and country with plenty of hellfire and brimstone to go around. On his sixth long-player, Biram moves between acoustic and electric guitars and mixes in snippets of televangelists between tracks. If you’ve ever succumbed mightily to temptation and prayed just as hard for salvation, you know where Biram is coming from. Buckle your hat and put this on.

George Harrison – Thirty-Three and 1/3 (1978) The fifth album from the Quiet Beatle after the split is a lukewarm affair. The first song, “Woman Don’t You Cry for Me,” opens with a popping bass funk riff that always makes me take a second look at the label and make sure this is actually a George Harrison album. Unfortunately, the second cut is limp, failing to build any momentum from “Woman.” This is the album’s biggest problem. There are some good songs, but they are sunk around listless tracks. The strongest run comes on the second side with the run of “True Love,” “Pure Smokey” and “Crackerbox Palace.” If you put these songs with the three good songs from the first side you’d have a solid EP. That’s six out of ten good songs, a fantastic batting average for baseball but far too low for a Beatle.

Phosphorescent –  Muchacho (2013)

The Lone Bellow – Half Moon Light (2020) The Lone Bellow have always sounded more southern than their Brooklyn roots imply. For their fourth album the trio let more of the indie rock sound from their native borough creep into the mix. Likewise, Phosphorescent frontman and Huntsville, Ala. native has always had more than a little Williamsburg hipster in his brand of country music. Although Half Moon Light and Muchacho were recorded several years apart, they share a complementary vibe and kinship.

The best moments on Muchacho include the triumphant “A Charm/A Blade” and “The Quotidian Beasts,” which sounds like Calexico produced by Daniel Lanois. “Song for Zula” has been all over the place, but I like it best as the music over the credits for the very underappreciated indie romance film “The Spectacular Now.”

Half Moon Light is a similarly sturdy album. Among the stand-out tracks here are “Friends,” the horns and harmony assisted “I Can Feel You Dancing” and the tender “Dust Settles.” If you ever wondered what David Gray might sound like with a touch more country in his repertoire, these albums are for you.

The Flaming Lips – 7 Skies H3 (2011) A while back, the Flaming Lips, Oklahoma City’s finest psychedelic rock export, recorded a 24-hour song, slipped it on a thumb drive and stuck them a real human skull. 7 Skies H3 is a one-hour distillation of the best moments from that experiment. You know, in case you didn’t want to spend a day of your life listening to the full song or want a human skull. (Or maybe a second one. If you already own two, you are likely a voodoo priest. Would a third really matter at this point?)

As expected the results aren’t typical three-minute singles. All the tracks are either instrumental or feature heavily processed vocals. I wouldn’t play it for a backyard cook-out, but as a psychedelic exercise, it is quite good. My favorite moments include “Battling Voices from Beyond,” an aggressive track propelled by tympani and the closing ethereal two-for of the title track and “Can’t Let Go,” the closest thing to a traditional song on the album.

Social Distancing Spins – Day 27

By Joel Francis

David Gilmour – About Face (1984) Simply put, About Face is not only David Gilmour’s finest solo album, but superior to Pink Floyd’s Momentary Lapse of Reason and The Division Bell as well. “Murder” is Gilmour’s response to the assassination of John Lennon. It starts as quiet acoustic number before exploding in anger against Steve Winwood’s expansive organ playing. I have no idea what “Cruise” is about, but it’s an extremely catchy acoustic number. I’ll admit to be taken aback the first time I heard R&B horns on “Blue Light,” something Pink Floyd never explored, but they have grown on me. Pete Townshend wrote the lyrics for two numbers here. These compositions fit will with what Townshend was doing on his White City album, which I discussed way back on Day 4. Check out the live album Brixton Academy in 1985 featuring both Townshend and Gilmour for another stellar example of their synergy during this time. “You Know I’m Right” is about Roger Waters, with a title (and lyrics) shutting the door on any reconciliation. Gilmour and the Floyd (sans Waters) would be back in a couple years, but About Face makes a strong case that this was the (albeit less commercial) path Gilmour should have considered instead.

The Nels Cline 4 – Currents, Constellations (2018) Playing this album is a good way to find out who your true friends are. While some will hear obnoxious jazz guitar noodling (with two guitarists, no less), others will hear sublime fretboard interplay. If you do happen upon someone who also appreciates this music, buy this person a drink or ask them to marry you, depending on his or her gender and your preference.

Ed Ackerson – Capricorn One (2019) I must confess I had never heard of Ed Ackerson before buying a ticket to his memorial concert last February. Circumstances aligned in my favor: a free evening, a solid lineup, a reasonable ticket price and an opportunity to finally see a show at the famed First Avenue. For a while I felt like an interloper, but after exiting with an armload of vinyl and all the $1 CDs I could get, I now count myself converted.

Capricorn One was Ackerson’s last album before succumbing to pancreatic cancer last October. It’s a Syd Barrett-influenced slab of soaring guitars as wonderfully atmospheric as its sci fi-inspired title implies. Ackerson wrote all the songs, played all the instruments and produced all the tracks. His final musical vision is a great ride.

The Black Belles – self-titled (2011) The self-titled debut by this garage rock quartet is unfortunately their only release. Produced by Jack White for his Third Man Records, it’s hard to tell where the producer stops and the band ends, but if you like White’s raw aesthetic that’s not a bad thing. According to the band the writing and recording came together pretty quickly. They did several high-profile shows during their brief time together, including backing Stephen Colbert on the Colbert Report and playing on his “Charlene” single. They also performed at the Devil’s Night Halloween concert in 2012. My favorite songs here include the appropriately titled “Honky Tonk Horror,” the moody “Not Tonight” and the very Jack White “In a Cage” but the entire album is good enough to make me wish there was at least another volume. Main songwriter, guitarist and vocalist Olivia Jean has subsequently released two solo albums with White and Third Man.

Buffalo Springfield – Again (1967) Neil Young jumps to the fore on Buffalo Springfield’s second album, and it’s easy to see why. His three compositions – album opener “Mr. Soul,” “Expecting to Fly” and closing cut “Broken Arrow” – are all classics in his expansive songbook. But the other songs here are no slouches either. Stephen Still’s banjo-driven “Bluebird” is a lovely song. Later, the harmony vocals on his song “Rock and Roll Woman” foreshadow the coming of Crosby, Stills and Nash. Richie Furay chips in a couple solid compositions as well. The unique horn arrangement on “Good Time Boy” definitely makes it stand out on the album. Buffalo Springfield collapsed under their own weight the following year. Again ranks as the group’s finest release during their short tenure.

Review: Wilco returns to the Crossroads (2009)

(Above: Jeff Tweedy goads the crowd then gives them a “Sonny Feeling.”)

By Joel Francis

Wilco had been onstage for nearly two hours Tuesday night when they headed back out for their second encore. Despite a long night and a chilly temperature somewhere in the 40s, they unloaded both barrels with the energetic one-two of “Monday” and “Outtasite (Outta Mind).”

For those few moments, the show touched the same stratosphere the band maintained throughout their for-the-ages performance almost two years ago to the day at Crossroads in 2007. The force and power bubbling under the surface for most of the night finally emerged and everyone – band and sold-out crowd alike – soaked it in.

The band announced its presence with “Wilco (The Song)” which found guitarist Nels Cline violently thrashing his guitar in front of his speaker to induce feedback. Although each song in the return engagement to Crossroads was solid, they all hit the same emotional plane without generating much drama. The main set was very, very good, but very reliable, without any peaks or valleys.

Wilco was at its best when it stretched out, as on “Bull Black Nova,” “Handshake Drugs” and “I’m the Man Who Loves You.” “At Least That’s What You Said,” opened gently on Pat Sansone’s piano before the harsh stomp of Jeff Tweedy’s guitar took over. The band inverted the loud-quiet-loud formula for “Misunderstood,” which thundered between verses before dropping back to Tweedy’s voice and guitar.

Because the band’s latest release, “Wilco (The Album),” is a summation record, the new material fit well alongside old favorites. Although it tipped toward the fresh, the setlist was democratic, ignoring the first album and drawing equally from the rest.

As the songwriter and frontman, Tweedy gets the spotlight, but the entire ensemble deserves credit. Bass player John Stirrat contributed gorgeous harmony vocals to several songs. Cline delivered several jaw-dropping solos, but the most amazing one came during “Impossible Germany,” where he made the guitar neck seem three times as long.

The evening’s secret weapon, though, was Sansone, who added an organ texture reminiscent of The Band’s Garth Hudson to “Kingpin” and seemed to chipping in a tasty guitar or keyboard line every time I looked his way.

There were a few pleasant surprises, like the “Summerteeth” nugget of joy “I’m Always in Love,” a loose and funky “Hoodoo Voodoo” that found Sansone and Cline trading guitar solos, and “Radio Cure,” which sounded like a voyage inside Tom Waits’ piano.

Always affable, Tweedy was in good spirits, suggesting the throng shouting requests elect a president and present their wishes in writing. After blowing his nose during “Hate It Here,” he pretended to toss the handkerchief into the audience.

Nearly two and a half hours after saying hello, Wilco closed out the night with a barnstorming version of “I’m A Wheel.” After teasing the embers they lit a sonic pyre on a cold night that will burn brightly until their next visit.

Setlist: Wilco (The Song); I Am Trying To Break Your Heart; Bull Black Nova; You Are My Face; One Wing; A Shot In The Arm; Radio Cure; Impossible Germany; At Least That’s What You Said; One By One; I’ll Fight; Handshake Drugs; Sonny Feeling; Hate It Here; Can’t Stand It; Jesus, Etc; Walken; I’m the Man Who Loves You. (Encore 1:) Misunderstood; I’m Always In Love; You Never Know (with Liam Finn); California Stars (with Liam Finn, Eliza Jane Barnes). (Encore 2:) Kingpin; The Late Great; Monday > Outtasite (Outta Mind) > Hoodoo Voodoo; I’m A Wheel.

Keep reading:

Wilco Wows at Crossroads (2007)

Review: Wilco at Wakarusa (2005)

Jay Bennett, Always In Love

(below: Jeff Tweedy at Crossroads, Oct. 6, 2009.)

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