Mastodon – Blood Mountain

Released nearly a decade ago, Mastodon’s landmark concept album about scaling a bewildering peak—and encountering bloodthirsty wolves, unified tree-people colonies, and ice gods—has been recently reissued and remastered on colored vinyl befitting the record’s chromatic characteristics. While the Tolkien-esque premise would flounder in the hands of a lesser band, the Atlanta metal quartet responds to the thematic and musical challenges with aplomb.

Weaving together a web of thrash, prog, psychedelic, and blues disciplines, Mastodon approaches pace, contrast, and angularity with idiosyncratic discipline. Brann Dailor’s ultra-dynamic drumming and jazzy faculty for off-kilter spacing and color functions as the anchor. Manhandling complex rhythms, his arm-twisting rolls launch soirees and double-bass thunder ignites percussive landslides. Dailor’s mates are equally proficient, their instruments doubling as lances that carve fills that, akin to the songs’ breadth, stem from a classical school of thought.

Blood Mountain remains as fresh today as it originally sounded in 2006. Shredding passages mutate into a shoots-and-ladders series of harmonized solos on “Crystal Skull.” Acoustic passages and fluid notes lighten the load of the alternately crushing, alternately consoling “Sleeping Giant.” Bench-pressing riffs and vocoder effects recreate the alien life forms of “Circle of the Cysquatch.” On “Siberian Divide,” grinding turns respond to tales of hypothermia and cannibalism. Mastodon embraces a cosmic sensibility throughout, turning to Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme to supply hallucinatory background vocals for “The Colony of the Birchmen” and delving into fractal folk on the reverb-misted “Pendulous Skin.”

Producer Matt Bayles preserves Mastodon’s thickness while allowing songs to breathe. Dailor’s floor-shaking beats and firm drive illuminate the spacious midrange, and the background vocals fight for transparency, it doesn’t subtract from the forceful footprint and solid tonal balance that account for the involving reproduction of the arrangements’ seemingly indefatigable structures.

Reprise’s new $20 pressing is relatively quiet and, with custom-swirled yellow and green wax,  affirmatively psychedelic. It marks the first time Blood Mountain has been available on LP since a 2010 black-vinyl version, and there’s a reason why the band’s studio catalog keeps going out of print. Namely, Mastodon sounds aptly muscular and burly on vinyl. While this edition doesn’t register the dynamic impact and three-dimensional forcefulness of 2010’s collectable Record Store Day 180g 45RPM pressing—limited to 2500 copies and now fetching upwards of $150—it’s well worth the time of any analog lover that values elite musicianship and hair-raising intensity. Bob Gendron

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Waxahatchee – Ivy Trip

Katie Crutchfield, who performs under the guise of Waxahatchee, is what it might sound like if a bundle of nerves could talk.

On her group’s third and most structured album, Ivy Tripp, the Alabama native takes stock of circumstances, possibilities, and worries from close-up perspectives informed by first-hand experience and imagined scenarios. Dealing with relationships and expectations, Crutchfield addresses themes to which most 20- and 30-somethings can easily relate in a clever fashion largely free of irony yet loaded with sharp-tongued directness. She navigates the balance between keeping her distance and getting intimate, and when accusations fly, doesn’t spare herself from blame.

While Crutchfield observes love from a cautionary stance, she refrains from viewing it with a jaundiced eye. Since the band’s 2013 breakout and largely solo-based Cerulean Salt, she’s also gained more confidence, which is on display throughout the more put-together record. Waxahatchee’s lo-fi roots remain visible, yet many songs call for a full band, and some even rock out with the four-on-the-floor beats and dynamic thrusts. Each claims ownership of a subtle hook or wordless melody. Crutchfield’s modest country-tinged voice emerges as a fuller instrument, too, with her phrasing weaving between dips and divots created by spare bass lines, humming organs, and stair-climbing percussion.

Against raw and exposed arrangements, the vocalist often seems as if she’s singing thoughts to a best friend or delivering a break-up notice to an ex amidst the commotion at a bar. And where Crutchfield could appear overly fragile and insecure on past efforts, the 26-year-old comes across with deeper maturity and self-assuredness here. She’s still confessional, openly vulnerable, and occasionally sad, yet she also expresses unmistakable determination and punk-derived toughness.

“You’re less than me/I am nothing,” she repeats on the fuzz-coated scrawl of “<,” demonstrating both the will to knock herself down a notch and float above the ruinous fray of a wrecked romance. On the chiming bash-and-pop of “Under a Rock,” Crutchfield confronts insatiability and expendability as she evaluates her role and future. Similarly unflinching, the beautifully minimalist piano ballad “Half Moon” reflects the vocalist’s penchant to evaluate states of affairs with painful honesty. “Our love tastes like sugar/But it pours all the life out of me,” she sighs in a tattered tone, resigned to accepting loss and moving on.

Indeed, Ivy Tripp might be pockmarked with moments of despondency and uncertainty, yet the record never wallows in despair. Crutchfield often gives reason for optimism in spite of outlying challenges. She takes space to locate her bearings on the rubbery “Poison,” admits a need for companionship the deceivingly innocent “La Loose,” and relishes peacefulness on the acoustic “Summer of Love,” a devotional tune accented with the natural sounds of the outdoors and a barking dog.

“I’m not trying to have it all,” Crutchfield sing-states with authoritativeness on the back-and-forth emotional teeter-totter that is “Breathless,” before closing the serious dirge with a frolicking la-la-la coda that could’ve been pulled straight out of the hills scene in The Sound of Music. It’s the mounting echo of an intelligent artist that may not know exactly what she wants, but who realizes sorting through anxieties ultimately lead to finding one’s identity. —Bob Gendron

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Lightning Bolt

For more than two decades, Lightning Bolt has embraced barely controlled chaos as a secret ingredient and ear-shredding volume as an invisible third member of the band.

Legendary in noise-rock circles, the Rhode Island duo made its name by embracing underground principles and pushing them to extremes on both album and, particularly, in performance. Drummer Brian Chippendale and vocalist/bassist Brian Gibson frequently eschew stages in favor of setting up in the midst of the crowd on venues’ floor. They’ve also played kitchens and sidewalks, donned crazy wrestling and serial-killer masks during shows, and generally avoided anything related to convention.

While the group’s non-traditional thinking serves it well during anything-goes concerts—in which the element of surprise, frenetic tempos, and blaring decibels are the only givens—it obscures the band’s talents on album. Ever since its self-titled 1999 debut, Lightning Bolt has refused to record in a studio with proper high-fidelity gear, instead releasing lo-fi material that sounds as if it was captured in a cardboard box. Avant-garde aesthetics aside, the approach seemed to resemble unnecessary self-sabotage.

Peeling back the curtain on the collective’s tumultuous assault and manic array of fuzzed-out distortion, rampaging grooves, and free-jazz-inspired percussion, Fantasy Empire functions as a long-needed lightbulb moment. Recorded at Machines With Magnets studio, Lightning Bolt’s sixth proper album doubles as a deserved breakthrough for two musicians whose terrifying precision, intensity, and rumble can finally be heard full bore. Music that previously came across as a jet-speed muddle of thwacks, thuds, and turbulence now possesses honest-to-goodness detail and dynamics.

Volatile tunes such as the wood-mulching masher “Over the River and Through the Woods” and yowling stomper “King of My World” retain all the madness of previous work, yet also emerge as genuine songs with identifiable structures and (gasp!) textures—not simply abstract excursions into fury and pandemonium. Whether on the electric-can-opener riff that underlines the onslaught dubbed “The Metal East” or the berserk rhythms getting sawed off in all directions during the epic “Snow White & 7 Dwarves Fans,” Chippendale and Gibson maintain a focus and discipline that set them apart.

They’re also wise enough to realize the importance of breathing room, and balance the attack with decelerated intervals. Subtle additions, like loops and reverb, further contribute to the sense that Lightning Bolt has officially transcended art-project status and elevated itself to a band that’s now as good on record as it is on the stage—whatever the latter might represent on any given night. —Bob Gendron

Lightning Bolt
Fantasy Empire
Thrill Jockey, 2LP or CD

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Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit

Courtney Barnett makes it virtually impossible to listen to her outstanding full-length debut while doing something else.

Forget about experiencing it as background noise, or even texting as it plays. You could call it one musician’s foolproof way to defeat attention-deficit disorder and today’s easily distracted, multi-tasking audiences. Yet Barnett isn’t out to change the way people listen by pulling a stunt. Instead, the magnetic pull of her Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit owes to a savvy combination of witty songwriting, evocative melodies, concise arrangements, and sly deliveries that comes around too infrequently in an ego-centric age absent creative gatekeepers.

Akin to the most memorable “Seinfeld” episodes, the Australian native showcases a knack for transforming common occurrences and everyday thoughts into meaningful observations and deep think pieces. She conveys insightful outlooks and brainy details in rambling albeit simple, conversational turns of phrases that wouldn’t be out of place at an unassuming neighborhood pub. Free of excessive jargon and forced irony, Barnett refreshingly avoids satirical postmodernism. She’s also not solely preoccupied by love or 21st century dating—or, at least, not yet so permanently scarred that she fully gives into the topics—expanding her outlook toward larger issues encompassing human interaction, integrity, responsibility, and self-worth.

Via rhymed couplets and snappy descriptors, Barnett possesses the relatable consciousness of a smart novelist. And through her tangle of stripped-back pop hooks, deadpan singing, and bounding garage-rock grooves, she exhibits the gruff appeal and winking humor of a rough-around-the-edges bartender—a profession she knows well, having worked full-time in a Melbourne tavern until February 2014. In her off hours, the art-school dropout utilized honed her artistry, headed an indie record label, and cobbled together enough songs for a succession of self-released EPs reissued last year as The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas. Critically acclaimed appearances at major music festivals followed. Yet none compare to her achievements on Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit.

Placing a fresh spin on the adage “leave them wanting more,” Barnett reshapes the apparently ordinary into incidents infused with aha moments, unexpected revelations, and candid admissions. Seemingly plain on the surface, her vignettes skirt obvious conclusions. She challenges anyone within earshot for their undivided attention on the album-opening “Elevator Operator,” which skips along to a contagious beat and Barnett’s matter-of-fact sing-speak vocals that begin the second the song starts. In less than three-and-a-half minutes, she sketches vivid profiles of two characters to the extent their habits, moods, and identities are fully formed. An aptly surprising ending clinches the tale, which ostensibly involves routine and shallowness but goes further to address expectation, awareness, and perspective—themes that course throughout the record.

In Barnett’s universe, features often seen as trivial signify larger concepts. Cracks in the wall and patterns on the ceiling beget revelations about a relationship in “An Illustration of Loneliness (Sleepless In New York).” Communicated with equal parts spunk and bite, Barnett’s backing band curls snake-like rhythms around her half-lazy, half-droopy singing. On the country-folk strummer “Deprestron,” she both flips the script on the charms traditionally associated with suburbia and confronts swept-under-the-rug circumstances connected to property sales. In the process, Barnett assails not only real-estate customs that encourage buyers to bury history, but myriad practices and procedures that cause people to lose sight of feelings and responsibility.

Indeed, the singer employs understatement and nuance to imply there are serious costs and consequences connected to habits that remain out of sight and behaviors taken for granted. “Dead Fox” grapples with environmentalism, waste, and consumption as Barnett contemplates fruit sold in the market, trucks that pass by her, and animals slaughtered for her food. “Kim’s Caravan” is similarly subversive, its slowed pace and echoing distortion indicative of the song’s weighty meditations on culpability and exploitation. As she does many times on the album, the 26-year-old utilizes simple notions—and identifiable situations—to express broader points in astute manners.

Barnett also understands how to have fun. She takes shots at indecisiveness and facades on the catchy “Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go to the Party,” ringed with driving guitar riffs, nasal accents, and spunky vibes. During the spring-loaded “Aqua Profunda!,” the singer dizzily recounts an encounter with an attractive stranger at a swimming pool and wraps anxiety, desire, embarrassment, and disappointment up into one hilariously sincere two-minute story. And on the tongue-in-cheek “Pedestrian at Best,” Barnett lashes out at pretense, sanctimonious, and presumption with savage impact.

At its core, the stomping song recalls the rawness, insistence, and volume of mid-period Nirvana, the group whose chords Barnett learned when she first picked up a guitar. If Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit is any indication of the Australian singer’s trajectory, countless young upstart musicians will be sitting at home and using Barnett’s work in the same way during the years to come. -Bob Gendron

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Another Day Another Time

Initially trumpeted by critics as an Oscar contender and a thematic relative of the Oscar-winning directors/screenwriters’ smash O Brother Where Art Thou?, the Coen brothers’ 2013 film Inside Llewyn Davis failed to win over public interest.

The soundtrack, designed to channel the vibe of the Greenwich Village folk scene in 1961 and anchored by contemporaries such as the Punch Brothers and Justin Timberlake (who starred in the movie), disappeared nearly as quickly from view.

It seemed, however, the project’s overseers knew such an undertaking would remain under the radar. Having admitted as much, and to create additional buzz, the Coen brothers and producer T Bone Burnett staged a benefit concert at New York’s Town Hall in September 2013. The affair featured actors and musicians from the film as well as a cadre of artists that trade in the sort of roots fare—old and new, traditional and original—connected to or informed by the scene that attracted Bob Dylan to the East Coast and, ultimately, changed the course of culture.

While such one-time events often poorly translate to records and video, Another Day Another Time: Celebrating the Music of “Inside Llewyn Davis” retains a curious allure thanks to the consistency of style and performances. A host of marquee names—ranging from Joan Baez and the Decemberists’ Colin Meloy to Elvis Costello and Jack White—supply star power and bow with expectedly solid turns. Highlights include Baez delivering a stark “House of the Rising Sun” and White, refreshingly free of shtick, transforming his own charmingly innocent “We’re Going to Be Friends.”

Yet this acoustic-based set succeeds most between the lines, via several up-and-comers that take full advantage of the platform. Carolina Chocolate Drops singer Rhiannon Giddens transcends what she’s shown thus far with her main group on the antebellum-informed “Waterboy” and Celtic standard “S’iomadh rud tha dhith orm/Ciamar a ni mi ‘n dannsa direach.” The arresting readings reveal a voice pregnant with gospel, texture, grace, and power. Similarly, the manners in which the Secret Sisters dial up tender harmonies on the mournful “Tomorrow Will Be Kinder” and Lake Street Drive skit through “You Go Down Smooth” give more reason to be optimistic about the health of traditional-minded folk in the 21st century.

And while he’s already familiar to Americana aficionados Punch Brothers member Chris Thile again proves he’s ready for an even bigger stage throughout. Along with Gillian Welch, who is superb both in small (“The Way It Goes”) and ensemble pairings (“Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby”), Thile functions as the evening’s jack-of-all-trades. He grooves with his main group on “Rye Whiskey” and shines in a variety of settings in which he carries the instrumental weight.

At more than two hours, the 34-track collection occasionally suffers from momentum losses. The Avett Brothers stick out as revivalist pretenders and actors Oscar Isaac and Carey Mulligan add little to the proceedings. Still, the spirit of the past, promise of the present, and hope of the future in the form of Welch, Thile, Giddens, and Co. make it easy to overlook such temporary flaws.  —Bob Gendron

Various Artists

Another Day Another Time: Celebrating the Music of “Inside Llewyn Davis”

Nonesuch, 3LP or 2CD

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Bob Dylan – Shadows in the Night

Bob Dylan’s 2009 album of holiday standards could be seen as an example of the Bard having a little fun with the public, but make no mistake: Shadows In the Night, the 73-year-old’s stripped-down set of songs largely popularized by Frank Sinatra, is no laughing matter.

Nobody is going to argue that Dylan’s weather-beaten, gravel-textured voice belongs on the same level as Ol’ Blue Eyes’ baritone, Tony Bennett’s crooning, or even many of the contemporaries that tackled Sinatra projects. Yet the Minnesota native’s measured, cautious pace—and equally importantly, elastic phrasing, gentle timbre, and seeming self-awareness of his own abilities as a balladeer—begets an emotional honesty lacking on many of the forgettable Great American Songbook efforts released during the past several decades. Via restrained arrangements and resigned moods, the music often falls in line with several of Dylan’s better late-career records—including parts of Time Out of Mind and Love and Theft.

Focusing on Sinatra’s alone-at-the-bar saloon fare and wisely steering away from upbeat swing, Dylan succeeds in peeling away the big-band layers to leave minimalist arrangements that frame his vulnerability, regret, and loneliness. He expresses the latter feelings by taking his time with the lyrics, be it stretching syllables like taffy or drawing out spaces between words.

Having eliminated the traditional string elements—and save for three tunes, the horns—Dylan needn’t compete with a band. Rather, one complements him, with his longtime touring mates supplying discreet backgrounds salted with country and blues flavors. Donny Herron’s aching, gliding pedal-steel guitar lines mirror the singer’s loneliness on material such as “Full Moon and Empty Arms” and “What I’ll Do.” Dylan even manages to bring fresh perspective to “Autumn Leaves” and “That Lucky Old Sun,” investing each standard with a sense of tragic certainty Shakespeare—surely, a peer in spirit—would’ve appreciated.

Captured at Capitol’s Studio B, a location Sinatra frequented, Shadows In the Night claims no overdubs or separate tracking. Dylan and Co. recorded live, with no headphones or vocal booths. What’s in the grooves is basically what went down, and most songs were completed in one or two takes. The resulting intimacy and spontaneity lend further credibility to an album that, by looking to the past, speaks volumes about the need for more musical truthfulness in the present. —Bob Gendron

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Justin Townes Earle

Loneliness—and the fears that accompany the threadbare emotion—has long served as the inspiration for innumerable pop songs. The subject also provided the jumping-off point for many classics in the traditional country canon, with singers such as Hank Williams, George Jones, and Waylon Jennings making careers out of the sound of being despondent and continuing their erring ways en route to less-than-ideal circumstances.

Yet as many artists discover the hard way, it’s one thing to sing about forsakenness and another to truly understand what it means to be on a first-name basis with the feeling. The profound sadness tied to solitary existence and lingering heartsickness cannot easily be faked. The late contemporary singer-songwriter Jason Molina, who passed away in 2013 at the age of 39 from alcohol-induced organ failure, knew such deep-seated ache, sorrow, and isolation all too well. You can hear it on many of the remarkable records he made under the banners of Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co. Molina’s is a haunting beauty, a torment that reaches deep into listeners’ souls and doesn’t let go.

Justin Townes Earle can relate to such sentiments. Abandoned by his musician/actor father, Steve, when he was just two, he became addicted to hard drugs at a time when most of his peers were still busy worrying about their Little League stats. Multiple rehabilitation stints, at least one high-publicity arrest, and several near-death experiences later, the 33-year-old appears to finally be finding inner peace, having kicked chemical substances and gotten married within the past 18 months.

The release of Absent Fathers—the bookend to the equally strong Single Mothers, issued in October—goes further to suggest the foggy gloom long surrounding the younger Earle’s world is lifting. Spare, relaxed, and moody, the ten-track set primarily clings to downbeat hues and understated rhythms. Songs such as the crawling, stare-at-the-clock lament “When the One You Love Loses Faith” and stripped-to-the-bones “Day and Night” rightly focus on Earle’s low-key voice, a pliable instrument teeming with weariness and anguish yet too stubborn and invested to give up.

Rather than wallow in the melancholy of troubled thoughts, busted relationships, and abused freedoms, Earle’s weary deliveries convey a relatable compassion and unmistakable authenticity made even clearer by unfussy production. On the strolling “Least I Got the Blues” and languid “Slow Monday”—where the sluggish passing of time only serves to cause Earle to damn himself for acting a fool—country-laced pedal-steel guitar lines stretch across big-sky horizons and accentuate the singer’s unsettled state of mind. Picking up the pace on “Someone Will Pay” and R&B-etched “Call Ya Momma,” he ditches whiskey-nursing deliberation in favor of something approximating moving on.

“Why do you always think the worst of me, babe?” Earle asks during “Why” as a full band supplies a steady beat and honky-tonk accents. Like most of the record, the concise tune finds Earle mired in despair of one sort or another. But it also witnesses the singer considering other perspectives and contemplating better possibilities, the heartache a necessary stopover on the way to the hopeful catharsis intimated throughout the outlines of the subtly powerful Absent Fathers. —Bob Gendron

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Yes, the Meatmen!

“We’re the fucking men of meat!” proclaims the opening chorus during the leadoff track on the new album from Detroit’s offensive punk icons, the Meatmen.

Frontman Tesco Vee, who came back into the fold in 2008, has never sounded better. His primeval snarl utters “I’m gonna fuck you uuuuuuuuuup” on the same track.  Perusing the record’s track list reveals Vee hasn’t lost his nerve or politically incorrect sense of humor, with selections including such jewels as “Pissed Hot For Weed,” “Rock and Roll Enema,” and “The Ballad of Stinky Penis.” Think “I Sin for a Living” revisited and you’re halfway there.

The tunes remain short, sweet, and to the point, punctuated by buzzing guitars and thunderous drums arriving at a blinding pace. Age has not calmed this band one bit. However, the addition of guitarist Hindu Kush (Kevin Roberts) replaces the Ramones-like thrash of earlier Meatmen albums with a more straightforward metal approach that expands the musicality. Talk about a righteous upgrade.

While available on vinyl, in typical Meatmen fashion, Savage Sagas… still sounds like ass, so don’t expect higher fidelity in analog. But hey, it is the Meatmen.  Selfishly, I wish they would have released this one on cassette, so I could put it right next to my cassette of We’re the Meatmen…and You Suck. That would be oh, so much more punk.

It’s Just a Jump to the Left!

Somehow, the Rocky Horror Picture Show is still going strong after almost 40 years.  Now tame in comparison to half of the stuff you see on Fox News, it still has a sexy, kitchy charm.

Featuring a much younger and larger Meat Loaf as Eddie, a mostly forgettable Brad Bostwick (asshole) as Brad and introducing an incredibly hot Susan Sarandon as Janet, the semi frumpy chick who’s sexuality is awakened by the despicable Dr. Frank-n-Furter (played by Tim Curry) this record will either bring back fond memories, or augment the current soundtrack of your life.

This one won’t win any awards for sound or mastering quality, as the overall recording is slightly compressed from what you’ll hear in a theater with a great sound system, but if cranking the Time Warp doesn’t get you up off the couch to shake your groove thing, nothing will. It’s a must for your record collection.

My Favorite Picture of You

As a young man, Guy Clark made his name as an edgy, new-breed country songwriter along with the likes of Townes Van Zandt and Mickey Newbury. Now 71, he’s taken on the mantle of lion in winter.

My Favorite Picture of You is a finely wrought, late-in-the-day statement. The centerpiece is the title track written for his wife, Susanna, who died in 2012. On the album cover, Clark holds a Polaroid of her as a young woman. The song is a shattering ode to that photo and all it represents: the good times, the bad times, and the woman who stuck with him through it all.

Clark displays a deep social conscience in several songs. The bright Tex-Mex melody of “El Coyote” belies the darker story at its heart: undocumented Mexican workers exploited and abandoned by the “coyote” they’ve paid to smuggle them across the border. “Heroes” spotlights a damaged Iraq War veteran after they’ve come home. Employing old-school country recitation, Clark tells the story of a scarred young man going off the rails: “A silver star and a pistol in a drawer/The morphine just ain’t workin’ no more.” Like John Prine’s classic “Sam Stone,” “Heroes” cuts with scalpel precision, focusing on the raw specifics of one soldier’s story.

The singer’s songs are built on mournful cello, quietly burbling banjo, sweet fiddles, and warm acoustic guitars. Melodies are memorable and winning. But the lyrics, delivered in Clark’s weather-beaten voice, that resonate most of all. Like a gifted short-story writer, Clark is all about details honed to a razor’s edge. “Rain In Durango” is a shrewdly observed character study of a rambling girl: “She wound up with a backstage pass/Was hangin’ with the pickers in the band/Till her heart got broke by a banjo man/Now she’s had all the bluegrass she can stand.”

Every cut is a smart, distinctive gem. The riveting western story-song “The Death of Sis Draper” would make the late Marty Robbins smile. Clark also casts a sharp eye on the dangerous, addictive life of an artist in “The High Price of Inspiration.” And he offers up a cheeky take on life in “Good Advice.”

“Don’t give me no advice that rhymes/I’ve heard it all a thousand times/Don’t start preachin’ between the lines/Give me somethin’ I can use.” What Clark gives us is thoughtful art. My Favorite Picture of You is a quiet treasure. —Chrissie Dickinson

High On Fire: LIVE!

The biggest metal story of the first half of the year belongs to Black Sabbath.

More than three decades after his original departure from the band, vocalist Ozzy Osbourne reunited with most of his former mates to finally his first new studio album with the group since 1978’s embarrassing Never Say Die. All didn’t go as planned. Drummer Bill Ward sat out over reported contractual disputes and ceded his throne to Rage Against the Machine skin-pounder Brad Wilk. Osbourne also owned up to binging on drugs and alcohol, leading some to predict a divorce from his wife would follow. In the end, the revelation seemed like a publicity stunt.

As comebacks by Social Security-eligible musicians go, Black Sabbath’s 13 represents a respectable attempt at recapturing former glories. The chemistry is better than that on a similar ensemble’s return—Van Halen’s 2012 A Different Kind of Truth—and guitarist Tony Iommi still hasn’t encountered a giant riff he couldn’t slay. The involvement of big-name producer Rick Rubin coupled with an ad blitz helped give the English legends their first-ever number-one album. Granted, attaining such a feat is much easier in 2013. But numbers don’t lie.

Akin to every other heavy band to pick up instruments, turn up amplifiers, and conjure apocalyptic feelings, High on Fire owes much of its existence to Sabbath. Yet like every great artist, the Oakland trio managed to long ago transcend its influences and leave its own mark on its métier. In terms of consistency, aggressiveness, ambition, skill, and intensity, no metal collective dominated the past decade more than High on Fire.

Led by guitarist/vocalist Matt Pike, the threesome utilizes pace, power, and physicality in brazen arrangements stargazing psychedelia to village-pillaging sludge. Metal—as susceptible as any genre to spikes and lulls—is currently in a creatively dormant stage, but anyone curious about the style’s progressive evolution and modern strengths since its last peak (circa 2006) can turn to Spitting Fire Live Volume I and II for a Cliffs Notes summation.

While Osbourne and Co. kept busy last fall orchestrating a high-priced publicity rollout, High on Fire played gigs at a pair of revered New York venues shortly after Pike’s emergence from alcohol rehabilitation. Selections from those performances, which document a reinvigorated and even stronger-willed band than that of pre-treatment Pike, fill these concert LPs. High on Fire comes on looser than it does on its tight-as-a-clenched-fist studio efforts. Then again, Pike takes extra liberties with axe-wielding solos and by extension, pushes his mates to even greater heights. Songs such as “Frost Hammer,” “Devolution,” “Speedwolf,” “Fury Whip,” and “Rumours of War” sound true to their titles. Not for the faint of heart, High on Fire thrives on in-the-red energy and mantle-hot rhythms that shake harder than a revved-up Harley-Davidson.

Raw, ferocious, uptempo, tough, violent, growling, sweaty, beautifully ugly: Fine portraits of underground metal heroes that, to paraphrase Stanley Cup-winning Chicago Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford, play their nuts off.

The Latest From The Oblivians

Minutes into their first album in more than 15 years, the Oblivians sing about waking up in a police car.

Guitars faintly double as sirens while insouciant vocals indicate more than just casual indifference. When you hear the trio’s offhand deliveries, you know these guys have been there before. There’s no faking, no pretense, no make-believe about what it’s like to be aroused from a drunken slumber only to smell the plastic vinyl of a worn bench seat, look up, and realize you’re headed to jail.

The band’s nose for cheap thrills, thirst for even cheaper drinks, and lust for back-street pursuits permeates Desperation, a raw garage-rock album recorded live to a one-inch Scully eight-track recorder at Dan Auerbach’s Easy Eye Sound studio. Polished and pristine it is not. But immense fun lies within the 14 tracks, which include a jump-and-jive cover of Paul Butterfield’s “Loving Cup” that’s held together by salvaged instruments and sweaty desire. A similarly strong-willed do-it-yourself spirit comes to fore on a majority of the set, which resides in the same territory populated by seedy bars, glue-sniffing characters, and dark alleys.

Songs mirror the shady environments. Overdriven rhythms strut akin to alluring streetwalkers; charged tempos and stripped-back instrumentation hint at the campy shock sequences of 50s B-horror movies; simple percussive beats dig in and sway as if leading a parade of stiletto heels. Almost everything is caked in motor-oil grime, but the fuzz-box distortion never becomes overbearingly heavy or claustrophobic. Rather, the Oblivians honor their Memphis hometown by way of classic soul and stylish R&B figures that aren’t far removed from those preferred by Wilson Pickett or the Mar-Keys. The latter musicians’ legacies live on in the party anthem “Call the Police,” a collaboration with Mr. Quintron and Miss Pussycat that both gets down by way of a steaming-hot organ and makes good on its promise to “tear it down.”

Trashy, basement-reared rattling—as well as a penchant for sniffing around places and people your mother warned you about—also informs the wiry “Little War Child” and ringing “Pinball King.” Each contagious tune is evidence the Oblivians know their way around British Invasion hooks and surf-pop choruses as well as they do dive establishments most groups are too timid to visit.

And you can purchase it from SoundStageDirect right here…

The Big Lebowski Soundtrack

The Big Lebowski has a cult following that just continues to grow and if you had five bucks for every time you tried to ape “the dude,” you could probably go on holiday somewhere pretty nice this year.

Soundtracks are always a hit or miss, often getting stuck between chic and cheesy, but the BL serves up some pretty cool choices – perhaps the most intriguing, the Gipsy Kings rendition of “Hotel California,” the fourth track on a fairly chilled out side two.  This side ends with Townes Van Zandt doing”Dead Flowers.”  Side one is even more eclectic, featuring Captain Beefheart, Bob Dylan and Nina Simone mixed in with a previously unreleased Elvis Costello tune, “My Mood Swings.”

Fans of the movie know what a bizarre romp it is and this record captures the feel perfectly. The sound quality is fair, but this is a record you by for the fun factor.  If it wasn’t a movie soundtrack, it could easily be a cool mix tape from a clever friend.  And isn’t that what it’s all about?

SoundStageDirect has an exclusive on this gem, so click here to add one to your collection…

Destroyer, Resurrected!

Kiss never brought the fervor of its live shows to the studio, but on its fourth album, Destroyer, the quartet came close.

Six months after the legendary Alive!, the band is at the top of the world and at one of its highest creative peaks. All of the songs on Destroyer are solid, and the record delivered four memorable singles.

“Detroit Rock City” and “Flaming Youth” remained favorites for years to come, and “Shout it out Loud” took the place of “Rock and Roll All Nite” as the collective’s then-major anthem. The piano ballad “Beth” took everyone by surprise. For this budding audiophile, in 1976, Destroyer sounded much better on a pair of JBL L-100s than audiophile-approved Magnepans.

The new Destroyer (Resurrected) mix features producer Bob Ezrin back behind the console, adding here, embellishing there, with good results—until you read the phrase “digital copies of the original tapes” in the liner notes.  Ugh. Word of the original tapes being remixed almost always spells disaster in the rock world, but here, Ezrin’s affection for the band is a work of art. This record might have even been bigger if these changes were employed t he first time around.  The effort is now certainly more epic. Isn’t that what Kiss is all about?

Forget the $90 SACD released in 2010. It’s a marginal improvement over the original vinyl, still sounding flat and two-dimensional. And forget the new vinyl, mastered by Bob Ludwig for Universal. With barely more than half of each side of the LP devoted to musical information, you can guess what happened—compression. Epic fail. There’s no bass and it does not rock.

A quick comparison to the original pressing reveals that the new pressing has the same anemic dynamics and is slightly smoother on top. But zero dynamics means death to all that would otherwise rock. And that’s having played the vinyl through the Lyra Atlas cartridge and Qualia Indigo phonostage via two massive Audio Research tube monoblocks. I guarantee it will suck on your system.

If you love Kiss, and you still don’t have the ability to listen to high-resolution digital, there’s no better reason than Destroyer (Resurrected) to invest in the technology. This is the way a rock record is supposed to sound: thundering bass, over-the-top dynamics, and a wall of guitars that sounds larger than life. And I’ve been there since the first tour.

Excitement builds on the HD Tracks version the second the car door slams in “Detroit Rock City.” The opening guitar riff sinks the hook into the listener, and is firmly set by the first chorus. Long-term members of the Kiss Army will either relish the Resurrected version or spurn it as blasphemous. However, if you’re in the former camp, the 24/96 rendition contains many surprises.

Guitar interplay between Paul Stanley and Ace Frehley is clearly delineated, as Stanley’s rhythm licks are no longer buried in the mix. The child in “King of the Night Time World” has its own space that stays separate from the rest of the band. Best of all, Gene Simmons’ bass playing not only has more pace, but the convincing weight it deserves.  Also, the chorus on “Great Expectations” no longer sounds like it was recorded in a high-school bathroom. And that’s just side one. Another bonus? The alternate mix of “Sweet Pain.”  Ezrin mentions “fixing something that has bothered him for decades.” I won’t spoil the surprise.

Freewheelin’ on MoFi

What can really be said about Bob Dylan that hasn’t already been said by the world’s preeminent music critics?

Nothing, really, so it’s best to focus on the sound of this wonderful Mobile Fidelity release.

As with Beatles records, you’ll either find the stereo releases intriguing or heresy, but even those in the latter camp should get out of their comfort zone and give this version a try—you’ll be pleasantly surprised. While the original Columbia mono release has a certain midrange body absent from the stereo version, this edition comes damn close. And it exceeds the finest original pressings in every other way.

The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan is mostly Dylan, his guitar, and harp alone in a recording studio. Because this is the stereo mix, the harp does sound larger than life, and from time to time, the engineers’ panning creeps into the presentation. But who cares? What’s truly amazing is that the master tape is still in such good shape. MoFi removes so many layers of sonic crud here, there’s no need to try and seek out an early Columbia pressing.  This is the definitive rendition. And there’s another bonus: the newfound air and detail showcases Dylan’s skillful guitar playing.

Throughout, the record combines every molecule of Dylan’s unique intonation with a perfect blend of natural room decay and judicious reverb, conveying a delicacy that fools you into thinking the man is sitting on a stool in between your speakers. Playback on my newly rebuilt Quad 57s is simply stunning.

You can sum this record up with two words: “clarity” and “quiet.”  Josh Bizar at Music Direct (the parent company that owns MoFi) recently mentioned that the firm spent a “pile of money” upgrading the mastering chain at MoFi. So, add another word to the summation: “WOW.”  Dylan records have never been praised for their fidelity, but if this one doesn’t grab you immediately, have someone check your pulse.

Elvis Costello – Imperial Bedroom

Mobile Fidelity continues their streak of Elvis Costello classics with Imperial Bedroom.

Hitting the charts in the summer of 1982, Imperial Bedroom marked what would eventually be only one of the many turns Costello’s career would take. The twang of Blue now put to bed, Costello returns to the pop side of the fence, yet former producer Nick Lowe is absent on this record.  Turning to Geoff Emerick as producer and engineer, Imperial Bedroom takes a spin towards the Beatle-esq, with a wider range of orchestration and a few longer tracks peppering his standard faire of short, quirky pop songs.

Whether the allusion to a husband’s affair in “A Long Honeymoon,” affirmation of nervous love pervading “Man Out of Time,” or spousal abuse in “A Boy With a Problem,” don’t let Costello’s smooth tone fool you.  Beneath the smoky melodies an angst-ridden world still lurks.

Sonically, this record is an analog triumph.  The benefit of the using original mastertape is immediately evident. The MoFi album possesses a world of width and depth that is virtually nonexistent on the original US and UK pressings.  Where the cymbals are truncated in tone and dynamics on the Columbia version, they now fade to infinity, sounding much livelier.

Costello’s voice has a warm, throaty, reverb laden body throughout and audiophiles seeking the “pinpoint imaging” effect will enjoy the MoFi treatment of this classic, whether through their speakers or headphones. Now full of uncovered low level detail,   this version of Imperial Bedroom is destined to become a major hit with headphone listeners.

Be warned, there is so much new information on this record, ADHD audiophiles may freak out; the real standout is the liberation of Steve Nieve’s keyboard playing. Buried in the original mix like Michael Anthony’s bass lines on an early Van Halen record, it’s far easier to understand his contribution to the overall sound. His varied keyboard riffs are a great addition to the overall sound.

Often it is argued that todays remastered records rarely reach the level of excellence that the early original pressings do.  In this case, MoFi has exceeded the original in every way – the increase in clarity emphasizes the genius present on both sides of the mixing console.

You can purchase this album from Music Direct here.

The Faces – First Step

Released in the spring of 1970, the Faces, made their debut record – with members of the original Small Faces and the Jeff Beck Group. Mistakenly titled Small Faces in the US and Canada, what would become a highly influential and critically acclaimed band.

Unfortunately, they would never become a huge box office draw at the concert hall or the record store, with this album never going higher than #119 on the Billboard charts.

The ever stealthy 4 Men With Beards imprint does an admirable job on this forgotten classic, with nary a production credit in sight.  Whoever took the helm on this one, they did good work on the record as well as the reproduction of the gatefold cover.

Musically this one’s as raw as they come, and it’s well preserved.  Leading off with Dylan’s “Wicked Messenger” the record starts with a fat organ riff reminiscent of the Band’s Music From Big Pink, but the minute the guitar and Rod Stewart’s voice kick in, you know this is something completely different.

The rest of the tracks are all Faces originals and perhaps the strongest track on the album is “Flying,” though the band would not really reach it’s stride until their third – A Nod is as Good as a Wink… t0 a Blind Horse. However this album does build a foundation for what became The Faces’ signature sound – heavy on keyboards and relatively devoid of lead guitar excess.  In retrospect, it’s easy to see why the Rolling Stones may have considered Wood to be their rhythm guitarist.

4MWB has done an admirable job on the remaster.  My original is way too knackered to do an honest comparison, but the surfaces are quiet and this record sounds reasonably dynamic overall. To their credit, the label keeps their prices very reasonable, with this record only costing $18.95.

You can purchase this from Music Direct here…

Wayne Shorter – Speak No Evil

Who knew that while I was busy playing with Hot Wheels underneath the Christmas tree on my sixth birthday, that Rudy Van Gelder was busy making such a cool record a few thousand miles away?

Speak No Evil has Herbie Hancock on piano, Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Ron Carter on Bass and Elvin Jones on drums backing Shorter up with a formidable quintet – enlisting Hancock and Carter from Miles Davis’ last lineup.  Having worked with Jones and Hubbard as well, the group gels instantly, as they blast off in a more modal direction than much of the hard bob that had characterized this era of the Blue Note sound.

The first track, “Witch Hunt,” still has a heavy dose of bop, with Shorter and Hubbard leaping out of the speakers, engulfing you in horns – it’s almost hallucinogenic. The vibe slows down considerably after that and the rest of the record takes a mellower tone, slow and sweet on “Infant Eyes.”  Hancock’s piano floats way in the back of the soundstage and Jones provides delicate brushwork that is exquisitely captured.

Though these records are filled with quiet passages, there is no surface noise – just the slightest bit of tape hiss creeps in on the quietest parts, but it’s never offensive. And the big dynamic swings get the adrenalin flowing. Once again, Music Matters sets the bar for vinyl perfection.  This is as close as it gets to having the master tape at your disposal.

Music Matters Jazz

2 – 45 r.p.m. LP’s

Click here to purchase from Music Direct.