New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: southwestern gothic

Bombay Rickey Put Out a Hauntingly Twangy, Exhilarating Debut Album

Brooklyn band Bombay Rickey‘s new album Cinefonia – streaming at Bandcamp - has got to be the best debut release of 2014, hands down. With twangy guitars, hypnotic grooves and frontwoman/accordionist Kamala Sankaram’s shattering five-octave vocals, the band blends surf music, psychedelic cumbias, Bollywood and southwestern gothic into a lusciously tuneful, darkly bristling mix. Bollywood is usually the root source lurking somewhere in each of the album’s ten surprise-packed, shapeshifting songs, but cumbia, spaghetti western soundtracks, and the Ventures in their border-rock moments are more-or-less constant reference points as well. Imagine a more south Asian-influenced Chicha Libre fronted by one of the most exhilarating voices in any style of music, a picture that becomes clearer considering that Sankaram got the inspiration for this project the night she teamed up with Chicha Libre for one-off Yma Sumac cover show. Bombay Rickey are venturing north from their Barbes home base to play a Manhattan album release show on Sept 8 at 8 PM at Joe’s Pub; advance tix are $12, which is the closest thing to a bargain as you’ll ever get at this shi-shi venue.

Sankaram’s voice could shatter a black hole, never mind glass. Much as she’s built a very versatile career (everybody from Philip Glass, to free jazz icon Anthony Braxton, to opera companies, keep her busy), this band seems to be a defiant attempt to resist all attempts at being pigeonholed. Then again, defiance is a familiar trait with her: when she’s not fronting other groups, she’s writing and performing her own politically transgressive operas.

Guitarist/keyboardist Drew Fleming is a connoisseur of 60s surf and psychedelic sounds. Saxophonist/clarinetist Jeff Hudgins has a fondness for Mediterranean and Balkan tonalities; bassist Gil Smuskowitz shifts effortlessly between idioms, as do drummer Sam Merrick, percussionists Timothy Quigley and Brian Adler. The album opens with a Sumac tune, Taki Rari – it sounds like Los Mirlos‘ surf-cumbia classic Sonido Amazonico going down the Ganges. The interchange of accordion, strings, a sizzling sax solo and Sankaram’s electrifying shriek at the end are a visceral thrill, and do justice to the woman who sang it first.

Bombay 5-0, by Sankaram, transcends an awkward venture into takadimi drum language, Hudgins’ uneasy sax setting the stage for a big, dramatic, arioso vocal crescendo. Promontory Summit, a Fleming tune, explores dusky, hallucinatory desert rock vistas, bookended by balmy jazz-tinged ambience. The version of the Bollywood classic Dum Maro Dum (meaning “take another toke”) here is a lot more subtle and creepily suspenseful than either the boisterous, horn-fueled original or the many covers other bands have done over the years.

Pondicherry Surf Goddess, by Hudgins, starts out as an ambling shout-out to the Ventures, then winds its way through blistering newshchool Romany funk and art-rock. Another Hudgins tune, the somewhat menacing El Final Del Pachanga evokes Peruvian psychedelic legends Los Destellos, Hudgins’ sax intertwining with Sankaram’s supersonic vocal flights, Fleming following with a deliciously spiraling surf guitar solo.

Fleming sings the Johnny Horton-ish Coyote in the Land of the Dead, which sounds suspiciously like a parody. Likewise, Sankaram’s similarly deadpan rhumba-ish arrangement of a popular Mozart theme, which might have taken its cue from Chicha Libre covering Wagner. The high point among many on this album is a Sankaram composition, Pilgram, her wickedly precise, loopy accordion winding through a misterioso, lingering, surfy stroll with ominous bass and alto sax solos, the latter building to a spine-tingling coda. The album winds up with another darkly cinematic Sankaram number, Toco’s Last Stand, blending Balkan-flavored sax, dancing accordion and terse surf guitar underneath the singer’s unearthly wail. It’s a teens counterpart to the Ventures’ classic Besame Mucho Twist. This might not just be the best debut album of the year: it might be the best album of 2014, period.

The Clear Plastic Masks Return to Brooklyn With a Killer New Album

Nashville-based soul-punk band the Clear Plastic Masks have a wryly tuneful, guitarishly slashing new album, Being There – streaming here – and a couple of shows at the Music Hall of Williamsburg at 9 PM on Sept 10 and 11. They’re opening for the similar White Denim; it’s a bill where the opener is bound to upstage the headliner. General admission is $20; there’s also a 9/12 show but it’s sold out. It’s a homecoming of sorts from CPM, who first came together in Brooklyn before heading south.

The two bands share influences – classic 60s soul, garage rock and psychedelia –  but CPM do all those styles consistently better. White Denim is one of those bands that will hit one out of the park once in awhile and as a result can be frustrating while you wait for them to pull it together: maybe they should take a listen to their tourmates’ latest release. In the spirit of 60s vinyl singles, CPM like short songs: most of everything here clocks in at around three minutes.

The opening track, In Case You Forgot winds haphazardly through an oldschool 60s soul tune, Matt Menold and Andrew Katz’s guitars bending and tremolopicking as the rhythm section – bassist Eddy DuQuesne and drummer Charlie Garmendia – veers all over the place, bringing to mind mid-80s post-Velvets bands like That Petrol Emotion. The second track, Outcast looks back to what the mid-60s Stones did with Bobby Womack, a period-perfect take on what enthusiastically ambitious British hippies could springboard from a vintage Memphis soul tune. The coy Baby Come On veers back and forth between a shimmery, summery soul ballad and anguished clusters of guitar: it brings to mind two late 90s/early zeros New York bands with an aptitude for classic soul, White Hassle and Douce Gimlet.

Pegasus in Glue wraps dancing Syd Barrett-influenced fuzztone garage psych around a woozy interlude kicked off with a droll Hendrix quote. The slowly swaying Aliens is a grimly funny number set to a slow, catchy gospel-rock tune: the creepy ending caps off the storyline perfectly. A parable about the lure and dangers of religion, maybe?

So Real kicks off as a stomping fuzztone strut, then the band makes half-baked Link Wray out of it, then picks it up again: again, Katz’s tongue-in-cheek, surrealist lyrics and deadpan cat-ate-the-canary vocals draw comparisons to White Hassle’s Marcellus Hall. Interestingly, the album’s best and darkest song, Dos Cobras turns out to be an instrumental, a mashup of Steve Wynn southwestern gothic, organ surf and the early Zombies.

Hungry Cup, a piano-and-vocal ballad, is the album’s weirdest moment, told from the point of view of a girl about to throw up her hands and give up on a guy who can’t pull his act together. It might be a very thinly veiled broadside directed at posers new to Notbrooklyn (i.e. gentrified white areas of formerly ethnically and economically diverse Brooklyn), a mashup of late 60s Stones, Vanilla Fudge and lo-fi swamp-rockers like Knoxville Girls. The album winds up with a couple of slow 6/8 numbers: When the Nightmare Comes, which sounds like the Libertines taking a stab at a Hendrix-style take on soul music, and Working Girl, which could be a shout-out to whores in general, to girls on the train during rush hour, or both. That’s one of this band’s strongest suits: you never really know where they’re coming from, and they have a lot of fun keeping you guessing.

Catchy, Hard-Edged, Surrealistic Metal Cumbia and Skaragga from the Butcher Knives

It would be easy to write the Butcher Knives off as Gogol Bordello wannabes. But they’re not. Their debut album, Misery – streaming here – puts them on the same carnivalesque, ska and punk-influenced latin rock turf as Outernational, with more digital production values but also more minor-key Balkan menace. They’re playing the Mercury at around midnight on July 26; cover is $10.

15 Minutes sets disco bass over a muted hardcore beat, with a catchy minor-key hook, a surreal lyric about driving through burning neighborhoods and a brief but tasty tremolo-picked Nikko Matiz guitar solo. “You have to run, you have to hide, can you imagine what that feels like?” frontman Nacho Segura demands on American Dream, a galloping highway rock theme juxtaposed with ska-punk. Butcher Knives Unite is the band’s signature song, a briskly bouncy cumbia shout-out to immigrants feeling the pinch.

Could Be the End starts out by nicking the intro from Elvis Costello’s Watching the Detectives and morphs into steady brisk spaghetti western rock, with a cool, offcenter Ethan Cohen banjo solo out. Drunken Down mixes eerie southwestern gothic tinges into scampering circus rock: the blend of Matiz’s guitar and Tal Galfsky’s organ textures is just plain gorgeous. The album’s title track is a rapidfire metal cumbia tune with a sarcastically marching edge and another brief, bizarre banjo outro.

Nobody Knows Me, one of two tracks featuring rapper Ephniko, also gets a lot of mileage out of that out-of-tune banjo, hitting a slow, slinky cumbia groove. Pigs is the closest thing to Gogol Bordello here, a banjo-fueled punk stomp with a chorus of “drop the gun, drop the gun.” Step on the Line mixes GB surrealism with gothic border rock fueled by a spicy blend of Melissa Elledge’s accordion, Galfsky’s swirly organ and Cohen’s frailing banjo over a pulse that’s just short of frantic. And Tell Me Why has a similar mix of southwestern gothic and punk propulsion. The band’s politics are solid: they’re not afraid to be pro-immigrant, their Spanish/English lyrics take an aptly cynical view of American “freedom,” and you can dance to everything here.

Reconstructing Jenifer Jackson

Bad Cop: Welcome to another episode. This one really is an episode.

Good Cop: And it’s all your fault.

Bad Cop: Being the B team at this blog has its rewards. We get to see a lot of good shows…

Good Cop: We get to see the best shows. What’s been happening lately is that we’ve taken on the job of covering concerts by artists who’ve gotten press here before. Considering that they’ve been designated for coverage on multiple occasions means that they’re got to be pretty good. Psychedelic Americana songwriter Jenifer Jackson is one of those artists, and she has a show coming up at the small room at the Rockwood at 8 PM on July 21. It’s a good lineup, with jazz singer Joanna Wallfisch at 9 and then noir guitar legend Jim Campilongo and his trio doing their weekly show at 10.

Bad Cop: Are we going?

Good Cop: I hope so. We saw her show at the other space here on Allen Street back in March and it was amazing, one of the best ones I’ve seen this year.

Bad Cop: I’ll second that.

Good Cop: And this doofus [motions toward Bad Cop] lost the recording. Which means that in order to explain what she sounds like onstage, we basically have to reconstruct what happened several months ago, and to be honest, I can’t remember a lot of it. If I’m correct, this was the show where Jenifer announced that she had a new name for her band: the Denim Bridge. As she explained it, that phrase popped up randomly in conversation, one of those “wow, great band name” moments, and she grabbed it. And I think it makes sense: this is an Americana band, a lot of Jenifer’s songs are about people connecting – or not connecting – and there’s another level of connectivity here, between this group, which is based in Austin, and the core of musicians who made up her New York band who usually join her when she comes back to town.

Bad Cop: I don’t like the name. Too dadrock. The ninth album by Piscataway Watershed: Denim Bridge!

Good Cop: You’re not supposed to like it. But you did like this show, which is unusual because you’re such a grump. And now you’ve made me a grump because I’m grasping at straws to remember what happened. As I remember, it was a really cold night, but there were a lot of people there. I don’t want to drop names, but there were at least a half a dozen of the best rock songwriters in town in the room.

Bad Cop: Like who?

Good Cop: I’m not going to say. I don’t want to come across as a starfucker. Let’s just say that Jenifer Jackson is revered by her peers. A songwriter’s songwriter, you could say.

Bad Cop: What I remember is having to hit the bathroom beforehand, and there being a grand total of one bathroom for two rooms here – and having to compete with women for it.

Good Cop [speechless- shakes her head slowly, back and forth]

Bad Cop: That and Kullen Fuchs. He’s the lead guy in the band, basically. He was playing vibraphone. When’s the last time you saw a country band with a vibraphone? And he was fast and furious and amazing. And then he’d switch to accordion, and then trumpet. Sometimes in the same song.

Good Cop: Matt Kanelos played piano. I had no idea that he was so good at honkytonk. He channeled Floyd Cramer.

Bad Cop: Do you think that people in general have any idea of who Floyd Cramer was?

Good Cop: Country people all know. At least people who like classic country music. Which is one side of this band: they did a couple of honkytonk-flavored numbers, but the vibraphone gave them a fresh, new sound.

Bad Cop: You wouldn’t expect it to work but it did. Most of the songs, as I remember, were from the new album, TX Sunrise. My favorite was White Medicine Cloud, which is one of those hypnotic, quiet numbers that Jenifer writes so well. This one’s kind of epic, at least the way they played it. And it’s got an antiwar, why-can’t-we-all-just-get-along message that actually isn’t mawkish or trite. It was rather touching, actually.

Good Cop: One of my favorites was Your Sad Teardrops. A honkytonk kiss-off anthem with some really cool slip-key piano.

Bad Cop: Another really good one was All Around. Big, sweeping, angst-fueled anthem. An uneasy, windswept seaside tableau. Blog Boss said that this one sounded like Steve Wynn, which I think is right on the money. And if memory serves, this was the show where Jenifer broke out a bunch of the southwestern gothic stuff: On My Mind, and Picture of May, an awesome, creepy bolero.

Good Cop: Speaking of creepy boleros, she encored with Mercury the Sun and Moon, that minor-key psychedelic noir Vegas song from her first album that was such a big hit with her fans.

Bad Cop: I have a recording of that song from the show.

Good Cop: If that’s all you’ve got, let’s hear it! [Bad Cop hits the play button]. Well, that’s a vibraphone, but this isn’t Jenifer Jackson.

Bad Cop: You’re right, that’s Tuatara [hits fast-forward]. OK, here it is…

Good Cop: You cut off the beginning.

Bad Cop: Guess so. Too bad I lost everything else. This would have been a great show to listen back to.

Good Cop: Any shortcomings on our part you can blame on HIM [smacks Bad Cop in the stomach; Bad Cop doubles over in pain]. Hmmm…piano and vibes. Glittery gorgeousness. And all those scampering drum fills: do you remember who the drummer was?

Bad Cop [gulping]: Greg Wieczorek. Guy’s a genius.

Good Cop: I should have figured that out for myself. He has a very distinctive style. Omigod, the way Jenifer’s voice just went up with a harmony on the chorus, against the melody line – and then she does it again, That’s what I love about this band: they never play anything the same way twice.

Bad Cop: That’s the jazz thing. Jenifer’s dad is a famous jazz disc jockey, at least to the extent that a jazz dj can be famous.

Good Cop: They did an album together. And it’s really good.

Bad Cop: So are we going to this show on Monday?

Good Cop: I’m gonna bug the boss about it!

Gord Downie & the Sadies Conquering the Bowery

[Thanks to Bowery Ballroom's smart, energetic house manager, Amanda, who took the extra effort to make sure that this review happened]

Canadian crooner Gord Downie told the crowd at Bowery Ballroom last night that his show with the Sadies was their second gig “with lights and a soundcheck,” but the chemistry and energy was through the roof. Airing out most of the songs on their brilliant new album, Gord Downie, the Sadies & the Conquering Sun, they veered from surreal, sunburnt southwestern gothic rock, to hypnotic psychedelia, to the richly jangly, Americana-tinged rock that the Sadies have honed to a knife’s edge over more than a decade.

Has there ever been another rock brother combo as spectacularly true to their name as guitarists Travis and Dallas Good? Ray and Dave Davies, maybe, in a completely different idiom. Travis played deliciously clanging, ringing lines – and a sizzling electrified bluegrass solo toward the end of Los Angeles Times, a swaying Highway 61 revisitation. Dallas played slinky paisley underground leads, searingly high, sustained, reverb-drenched ambience and the occasional descent into frenetic, low-register roar on a couple of Telecasters. Their bassist stuck with a simple, muscular, low pulse in an attempt to cut through the mix over drummer Mike Belitsky’s artful shuffles and counterintuitive rolls across the toms, nonchalantly reasserting himself as one of the half-dozen best drummers in rock. He’s Keith Moon without the wrestlemania persona and more swing.

They opened with a couple of deliciously ringing spaghetti western-tinged numbers, Crater, then the album’s title track, the latter with the first of Dallas Good’s keening, paint-peeling leads. A little afterward, they gave the Who’s So Sad About Us an energetic workout that recalled the Jam’s version, but more elegantly. Later on in the set they did a stinging version of the Gun Club’s Goodbye Johnny, a strikingly apt choice of cover considering the resemblance between that band and this project, and encored with a frenetic, furiously riffing, extended take of Iggy Pop’s I Got a Right, Dallas Good firing off acidic layers of Ron Asheton sustain in place of James Williamson’s proto-glam attack on the original.

But it was the originals that resonated the most. Reaching up from his ominous baritone with an unrestrained angst, Downie completely sold the crowd on Budget Shoes, a grim, metaphorically loaded narrative about two desperados making their way across a desert “valley of ghosts.” The sardonic One Good Fast Job went down into snarling swamp rock; a little later, Downie dedicated the antiwar anthem Demand Destruction to antinuclear heroine Dr. Helen Caldicott – it sounded like the Who covering the Pogues. Devil Enough morphed electric bluegrass into Blonde on Blonde clang, while I’m Free, Dissaray Me went off into lingering Brian Jonestown Massacre-style psychedelia, a vivid contrast between the two guitarists’ styles. They wound up the set by stretching out the low-key soul ballad Saved into a similarly psychedelic anthem with several playful false endings.

Watching Downie strain to talk to the audience between songs was almost comical: as fans of his long-running band the Tragically Hip know, he’s actually a very articulate guy. As a diversion, he’d swing a big yellow spotlight from the back of the stage like a yo-yo in reverse. How he managed not to burn the skin off his fingers – those things get HOT – was the mystery of the night.

Downie and the Sadies continue their American tour with stops at Lincoln Hall in Chicago on May 10 and then at the Magic Stick in Detroit on May 11. Then the Sadies are at Beachland Ballroom in Cleveland on May 17 – if you’re there and this is your thing, don’t miss them.

Hauntingly Brilliant Retro Psychedelia from the Mystic Braves

Los Angeles quintet the Mystic Braves have grown into one of the most darkly interesting retro psychedelic bands out there. Throughout their new album Desert Island – streaming at Bandcamp – the menace doesn’t relent. They’ve also got a show coming up at the Mercury on May 7 at 7 PM; general admission is $10.

The album’s opening track, Bright Blue Day Haze works around a catchy, jangly four-chord hook that brings to mind Rhode Island psychedelic legends Plan 9, its many layers of guitar mashing up surf, funk and paisley pop. Ignacio Gonzalez’s swirling organ mingles with the layers of ominous reverb guitar on There’s a Pain, Tony Malacara’s trebly bass tiptoeing over drummer Cameron Gartung’s uncluttered pulse. Coyote Blood has a swaying, lingering desert rock ambience lit up with deliciously watery Leslie speaker guitar, something akin to the 13th Floor Elevators taking a stab at a late 60s Laurel Canyon sound.

The album’s title track glides along on dark Doorsy changes, Gonzalez’s funeral parlor organ anchoring an expansive, Robbie Krieger-esque lead guitar track and frontman/guitarist Julian Ducatenzeiler’s memories of “relationships gone to shit.” Valley Rat takes an iconic surf theme and syncopates it almost beyond recognition before going in a funkier direction and then adding mariachi trumpet. By contrast, You Take the Dark Out of Me makes ominously straight-ahead rock out of a creepy border bolero, Gonzalez’s ghostly, keening organ again serving as the icing on the cake.

I Want You Back isn’t the Jackson 5 hit: instead, it’s a propulsive mariachi-rock anthem with a devious Animals quote and a long, memorably scrambling tremolo-picked guitar break. Born Without a Heart mashes up surf with a hypnotically vamping Elevators/Chocolate Watch Band groove. In the Past kicks off with an spikily macabre folk-rock intro and then works a characteristically catchy four-chord hook. The album comes full circle with Earthshake, another track that could be Plan 9 doing the Elevators. For anyone who loves the early Doors, Peanut Butter Conspiracy or Country Joe & the Fish, this is heaven. Is this best album of 2014? It’s one of them.

Richly Dark, Jangly Rock from Gord Downie & the Sadies

Canadian janglerockers the Sadies have made some great albums both by themselves as well as with Neko Case. Their latest project finds them working a hauntingly propulsive southwestern gothic vein behind Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie, who channels a Celtic-tinged, Nick Cave-style desperation on their new album, Gord Downie, the Sadies & the Conquering Sun. The album is streaming at the band’s site; they’re bringing this gorgeously dark stuff to Bowery Ballroom on May 2 at around 10. General admission is $20.

The album’s opening track, Crater motors along on a snarling, catchy garage-punk groove: it’s one of the loudest things this band’s ever done. Travis Good takes a twistingly bluesy guitar solo; “Crater, getting crushed in your dreams,” Downie rages. The second cut, a title track of sorts, is the first of the lingering, backbeat-driven, jangly minor-key desert rock numbers, Downie “working the fugitive dust under the conquering sun.”Los Angeles Times sways more slowly, painting a restless party scenario, Downie frustrated that he can’t cut through a pretentious crowd to get to an intriguing girl. An unexpected, tasty flatpicked acoustic guitar solo takes the song out.

One Good Fast Job picks up the pace, a bristling, minor-key swamp-rock tune. “You sound hard, you sound dope, you sound like you lick your own envelopes,” Downie taunts. It Didn’t Start to Break My Heart Until This Afternoon opens with an uneasily droning intro and then scampers along with a hypnotic Brian Jonestown Massacre garage-psych ambience. The best song on the album is the ominously reverb-drenched Budget Shoes, fueled by Mike Belitsky’s artfully tumbling, Keith Moon drums, Downie tracing the steps of a couple of desperados “walking through the valley of ghosts,” one with his eyes on the other’s superior footgear.

Downie’s Irish-inflected vocals pair off with the band’s country-tinged jangle on Demand Destruction: “Is this accident ever over anymore?” Downie asks anxiously. They bring in a slow, warmly nocturnal Beggars Banquet ambience with spiky mandolin and flowing organ on Devil Enough before they pick it up with an electric bluegrass drive. I’m Free, Disarray Me goes in a nebulously uneasy Psychedelic Furs direction. The album ends with Saved, a slow, pensive, soul-tinged 6/8 anthem. Pretty much what you would expect from the Sadies, if not necessarily from Downie: not a single substandard song on this, definitely one of the best albums of the year.

John Zorn’s Abraxas Plunges into the Killer Surf

John Zorn may have made a name for himself in the avant garde, but people forget what a hell of a rock tunesmith he is. Abraxas – guitarists Aram Bajakian and Eyal Maoz, bassist Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz and drummer Kenny Grohowski – have a new album, Psychomagia, out on Tzadik, which finds Zorn going off into noiserock and horror surf with the same kind of out-of-the-box tunefulness and assaultiveness as Beninghove’s Hangmen, or Big Lazy – or Morricone in his most acided-out back in the 60s, all filtered through the noisy prism of downtown NYC jazz. This being Zorn, some of his songs here are very through-composed, in other words, verses and choruses repeat less than you would expect from most surf bands. The result is both more elegant and more feral in places than even the mighty Dick Dale.

The opening track, Metapsychomagia, juxtaposes puckish wit with flickering menace, building from an uneasy bolero groove to a staggered Middle Eastern monster surf stomp, both guitarists ranging from lingering and twangy to frenetic and crazed, epic art-rock infused with swirling noise. Sacred Emblems is a Tex-Mex nocturne as Pink Floyd might have done it on Meddle, growing from a bittersweet Lee Hazelwood-flavored sway to southwestern gothic majesty. The band works a similar dynamic a little later on the considerably darker Squaring the Circle, a sort of Andalucian bolero surf number with a bracing Middle Eastern edge and unexpected dreampop echoes.

Circe is portrayed via a buzzing, squalling Raybeats-style stomp, the bass holding the center with burning low-register chords while the two guitars ride savage waves out into the maelstrom. Celestial Mechanism is closer to modern-day Balkan jazz than surf music, a shrieking, squalling two-chord vamp with the bass again holding the fort as the drums careen back and forth. Likewise, Four Rivers blends electric Balkan fusion with Israeli stoner metal over tumbling drums – it’s the noisiest thing on the album.

The Nameless God manages to be both the most opaquely indie-flavored and trad surf tune here, following a Ventures-in-space tangent over nebulously resonant, reverb-drenched guitars. The other two tracks here are the artsiest and arguably most interesting. Evocation of the Triumphant Beast is a genuinely evil creature, building from a macabre bolero over a stygian backdrop to searing, noisy postrock and then back with increasingly menacing flickers from the guitars. And Anima Mundi goes in the opposite direction, from an insistent danse macabre to a twinkly, clanging, serpentine guitar interlude that reminds of 70s psychedelic/art-rock legends Nektar. Throughout the album, the twin guitars sometimes wrestle, sometimes trade off gracefully, sometimes echo each other with a close yet dangerous chemistry that threatens to explode any second. On one hand, this album is so tuneful that fans of traditional surf music are going to love it; at the same time, it’s so deliciously evil in places that the most cynical Yo La Tengo diehards might be caught drooling.

So where can you hear this masterpiece? Start here at Youtube.

The Baseball Project’s 3rd Album: As Much Fun As an Unassisted Triple Play

The Baseball Project‘s new album, simply titled 3rd, sends you straight to Retrosheet. Baseball may not be the national pastime anymore, but this album is as deep and rich as the lore and the lure of the game. For fans, it’s pretty close to heaven – and for those who aren’t, it won’t alienate anybody because the tunes are so memorable and the playing is so flat-out excellent. What began as a one-off Steve Wynn side project has grown from a well-conceived novelty into a perennial World Series contender. The band is Hall of Fame caliber: Wynn (the Stan Musial of rock) on guitars and most of the lead vocals along with REM’s Peter Buck and Mike Mills plus the Minus Five’s Scott McCaughey and Linda Pitmon, who reasserts herself as the best and most consistently interesting rock drummer out there. The album isn’t up at Spotify yet, but the band’s first two are, so keep an eye out for it.

What makes the Baseball Project ultimately so much fun is that their songs celebrate the weird, the obscure and the tragic rather than the obvious. So many songs about baseball are cheesy and don’t really have a lot to do with the game, but the Baseball Project plunge into the history and the personalities involved, as well as what it’s like to be a diehard fan (and these guys really, really are). Although Wynn, the bandleader, has adopted the Yankees as his team, he’s written insightfully and poignantly about the Boston Red Sox, among other teams, on past albums. This time out, players from the Evil Empire are represented by four songs, while the Atlanta Braves – Mills’ and Buck’s team – also get plenty of props.

The first track is Stats, a pseudo-Ventures spacerock stomp with a seemingly random litany of numbers recited by Pitmon: random, that is, until you realize that’s Nolan Ryan’s season-record 383 strikeouts, Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak…and then the guessing gets really good. For those who don’t know, stats are crack for baseball fans and so is this song.

Two of the best songs here, neither of which namecheck the player involved, are the most depressing. From Nails to Thumbtacks traces the career arc of one of the early steroid casualties, Lenny Dykstra, who went from spare outfielder with the Mets to sudden and prodigiously beefed-up stardom with the Phillies, only to wind up behind bars after a long, long downward spiral. “You gotta be high to fall this far,”McCaughey intones over a backdrop that’s part Ramones, part new wave. And 13, arguably the best song on the album, looks at the A-Roid scandal with even more of a caustic eye than Wynn cast on Roger Clemens in the gorgeous Twilight of My Career, from the band’s first album Frozen Ropes & Dying Quails. Over a corrosively sarcastic spaghetti western tune, Wynn explains how Alex Rodriguez took #13 as his Yankees uniform number since Babe Ruth wore #3, but ultimately it was hubris rather than bad luck that scuttled the third baseman’s assault on Henry Aaron’s home run record.

Wynn evokes his classic 2001 riff-rocker Strange New World in Hola America, the brooding account of Cuban defector Orlando Hernandez, whose World Series stardom with the Yankees obscures the alienation he must have felt while estranged from his family in a new culture. McCaughey celebrates Dock Ellis, not for the Pirates pitcher’s acid-fueled no-hitter, but for his abbreviated start on May 1, 1974 when he decided to hit every batter in the Cincinnati Reds lineup as payback for what he perceived as hotdogging – and also to energize his lacklustre team, a ploy that actually worked! Mystified manager Danny Murtaugh pulled Ellis five batters into the first inning, but the hurler’s message had been heard loud and clear.

The mid-90s REM-style powerpop hit To the Veterans Committee makes a soaringly persuasive case for enshrining longtime Braves centerfielder Dale Murphy in the Hall of Fame. Not only was Murphy one of his era’s top power hitters, he made the tricky transition from catcher to centerfield – where he won more than one Gold Glove – and he also was (and maybe still is) a competent piano player!

Box Scores celebrates a great tradition that someday may only be accessible on your phone, but as Buck reminds, “Every summer, every day, the box scores keep me sane.” The only really obvious track here, The Babe, sends a shout-out to the Sultan of Swat over a regal Hey Jude pulse lowlit by some deliciously watery vintage chorus-box guitar. Another tribute to a home run king, They Don’t Know Henry makes haunting 60s style garage-psych rock out a tip of the cap to Henry Aaron.

McCaughey cynically ponders what makes the low-budget Oakland A’s so good – and connects the dots between Hall of Famer Catfish Hunter and the recently retired, mostly mediocre Dallas Braden – over a slinky Stones/T-Rex groove. Mills and Pitmon share vocals on Pascual on the Perimeter, memorializing the afternoon when the Braves’ eccentric righthander ostensibly got lost on the way to the ballpark – and wouldn’t you know it, Phil Niekro started in his place. Part Dream Syndicate, part True West and maybe part Yo La Tengo, it’s got some of the best snarling, burning guitar of any of the tracks here.

Larry Yount, a pensive folk-rock number by Wynn, recalls the older brother of Hall of Famer Robin Yount, whose single big league appearance ended before he’d thrown a pitch. He hurt himself while warming up after coming in from the Astros bullpen late in 1971 and never again appeared in a game.

The material gets funnier as the album goes along. The Baseball Card Song is a country patter tune rippling along with Buck’s banjo and a rapidfire rap by Wynn…see, he’d held onto the collection he’d amassed as a kid until this big Wall Street guy offered him some stock in a startup in exchange, and then the fun really starts. Another patter song riffs on both Johnny Cash’s Boy Named Sue and Heart’s Barracuda, a sideways look at a fireballing Red Sox righty who never won a single Cy Young Award despite his 511 career victories. Instead of the usual tired round-the-bases metaphors, the wry faux 70s boudoir soul number Extra Inning of Love looks at another kind of game you play at night from the perspective of a pitcher rather than a batter. And the album ends with Take Me Out to the Ballgame done Ramones style.

There’s also the They Played Baseball, a folk-rock rogues’ gallery of sorts: “Durocher had his lip, and Bob Welch his great big wine, Piniella had his temper, Mendoza had his line and it’s a fine line,” McCaughey grins. Which perfectly sums up this album, and this band: if you know who those guys are, this is for you. Now let’s get Steve Wynn to throw out the first pitch at a Mets home game sometime this year!

A Supremely Good Surf Album by the Reigning Monarchs

Surf music may be a lot of fun, but there’s always been a dark underside to the style, from Dick Dale wailing away at ominous Middle Eastern themes, to the perennially popular horror surf of bands like Beware the Dangers of a Ghost Scorpion. The Reigning Monarchs don’t play horror surf, strictly speaking, but their music is evil. The two-guitar frontline of Greg Behrendt and Boston powerpopsters Letters to Cleo’s Michael Eisenstein fires off reverberating, snarling, menacing chromatic riffage over the hard-hitting rhythm section of bassist David Hawkins and drummer Blair Sinta. Their debut album Black Sweater Massacre is streaming all the way through at their site.

Much as their sonics are retro – vintage-sounding guitars, reverb everywhere, pummeling surf drums – the Reigning Monarchs have an original and distinctive sound. For one, they use horns (Tower of Power’s Lee Thornburg on valve trombone, flugelhorn and trumpet and Eugene Toale on sax) to raise the dramatic effect on several of the tracks here. They also blend in elements of styles that didn’t exist until surf music was already retro. The brief opening track, It Might be the Perfect Now mixes surf and dreampop, a strangely effective hybrid they revisit later with the absolutely hilarious, tongue-in-cheek Tanya Donnelly. The brass first seems like it’ll be a distraction, but it works like a charm to raise the disquiet on the deadly biker rock theme Murder Your Summer, Eisenstein’s funeral organ whirling over Behrendt’s hammering menace. Likewise, Steakhouse Blues is a Lynchian low-rent Vegas roadhouse number with wild, unhinged tremolo-picking and a tricky false ending: it reminds of Beninghove‘s Hangmen.
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The album’s title track is a blistering noir tune, like a classier, more cinematic Ghost Scorpion, or a bollywood band doing surf.  It’s Always Gonna Rain works a backbeat cinematic highway theme, building to a crescendo where the two guitarists throw jangly phrases at each other before returning to a cynical Old West ambience. The intense, explosive Thuggery is sort of a Peter Gunne Theme for the teens, with a slashing, off-the-rails guitar solo midway through. Swamp Thing follows a cinematic path from bright and jangly to ominously lingering and then picking up the pace with a gallop.

Frankenstein Ska begins as awfully slow ska and ends as reggae, with noisy references to the Balkans and dub in between. Moto Guzzi rips the old pop standard A Taste of Honey, while the menacing, marching Roll the Tanks evokes Laika & the Cosmonauts at their most savagely sarcastic. The album ends with Bood Red Metal Flake, bookending more reggae with lurid chordal splashes and a squirrelly, flanged guitar solo. It’s early in the year, but we have a strong frontrunner for best album of 2013.

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