Ralph Carney’s Serious Jass Project, Seriously (Smog Veil Records)
Exactly how “seriously” should we take these “jass” proceedings? Former Tin Huey member and current Tom Waits hornman Carney’s archaic spelling offers a few clues, although this is far straighter than the punk jazz of early Lounge Lizards. But it’s not quite Henry Threadgill’s good-natured po-mo Dixieland Air Lore, either. With only one original among twelve cuts, it’s Carney’s self-described tribute to “honkers and screamers,” a tradition encompassing Louis both Jordan and Prima, Buddy Tate and Slim Gaillard, Western Swing and the striptease, plus a riposte to that scene in Bird where Charlie Parker supposedly wondered if a sellout’s saxophone can play more than one note. However, lowbrows beware – don’t come looking for evidence that Red Prysock was a genius (even if he was) and Duke Ellington a namby pamby, not least because the Duke contributes one-fourth of the album’s tunes. Vocals both relaxed and goofy make welcome appearances, with Charlie Barnet’s big band “Pompton Turnpike” turned into a small combo ballad with a men’s chorus that sounds like it was corralled out of a nearby bar. A gentle reminder that jazz is ever so much more than head music, although by going out all abstract in the final moments, Carney makes clear he wouldn’t want to live in a world without Sun Ra, either.
El Rego, El Rego (Daptone)
One strength of this collection of rare 7”s from Theophile Do Rego is its brevity – twelve tracks, forty minutes. Not that this afro-funk second-stringer from late 60s Benin doesn’t have a deeper back catalog than Daptone lets on, with four albums and numerous 45’s left unissued. Plus, in a move sure to frustrate completists, two tracks here were already recently compiled on Analog Africa releases, and what more than one commentator has identified as El Rego’s crowning funk glory – “Vimado Wignan” – makes no appearance at all, even though Daptone sold it this year as a vinyl-only single. But that supposed funk bomb isn’t life-changing (stream it yourself and find out), and those two repeat tracks are definite highlights, with “E Nan Mian Nuku” a slow-moving, plaintive chant, while “Feeling You Got” suggests James Brown plus accordion. And even though cuts like “Hessa” and “Djobime” are groove monsters, the compilers made their selections with enough variety to keep proceedings from bogging down into yet another African funk expedition – check out how “Kpon Fi La” utilizes an afro-cuban rhythm to support its haunting melody, or the way the song about cholera good-naturedly works up a cold sweat against frantic percussion and gorgeous guitar. Just keep in mind that despite wide-eyed liner note claims, El Rego’s vocals don’t stack up against the Godfather of Soul’s. Brown’s screams and hiccups demanded more vocal control than some let on.
Deer Tick, Divine Providence (Partisan)
Well, tsk tsk, these ne’er-do-wells sure worship the porcelain god, spitting out words like “douchebag,” celebrating the art of the binge, and deploying half-assed attempts at whistling in the first two songs alone. Exactly why this is cause for concern among sensitive indie types only suggests how wimpy the scene has become since raunchier days – no doubt, the same folks complaining of John McCauley’s piss ‘n vinegar persona would have assailed Paul Westerberg way back when for hating both music and job while joking about Johnny dying, and probably would have lobbied Shane MacGowan to make the switch to mineral water. Even if McCauley can’t measure up to those gloried heights, there’s a ‘Mats/Stones/Faces vibe here that would be perverse to deny, with quiet moments, in-jokes (catch that Peter and Gordon swipe on “Walkin’ Out The Door”?) and even politics (the crumbling infrastructure, mother nature’s menace, and “we hate them” aside of “Chevy Express” sums up 2011 fine enough for me) to balance out the many booze-for-alls. My only major quibble is that one of the few songs of a non-celebratory nature here is the John Wayne Gacy portrait sketch “Clownin’ Around”. Surely these guys know there’s a vast distance between mild substance abuse and serial killers.
The Field, Looping State Of Mind (Kompakt)
When techno enthusiasts describe an artist as “rock-friendly,” they mean it as a pointed dis, a suggestion their art form’s purity is being fucked with by heathens or hit-seekers. What such purists overlook is the fact that pop smarts and a feeling for rock dynamism can enliven any formula-driven scene. So if you like your dance music a bit sullied, Axel Willner’s third album (apparently with a full band, not that you’d notice) may prove a balm. “Is This Power” opens with a synthetic My Bloody Valentine glide guitar figure swirling insistently across beats one might even describe as funky, and that hazy Kevin Shields sound reappears periodically within seven long tracks. Glimpses of pop warmth peek out now and again behind pulsing textures (“Burned Out”), retro synth lines are deployed with wit and good will (as on the title track, somehow crafting a juicy hook out of two notes), and a simple, descending, piano figure anchors the ebb of “Then It’s White”. Only the skipping lurch of the final number feels like an academic exercise. Willner sells himself short – this indeed loops, but is much more than a Möbius strip.
The Soft Moon, Total Decay (Captured Tracks)
Luis Vasquez claimed Joy Division and the Mojave Desert as primary inspirations on his debut last year, and as awful as that sounds, the description fit an intriguing slab of post-punk noise all the more effective for drowning bare hints of vocals beneath layers of cheap synth and ominous bass lines. So what went wrong on this follow-up EP? Perhaps jettisoning Joy Division and the Mojave in favor of the most ridiculous excesses of old school goth. No songs, really, just a few chants and lotsa heavily-processed stuff. The bongo break on opener “Repetition” is kind of cool. The falsetto yelps that close “Alive” are nearly parodic. The rest might function as backing tracks for old Fields Of The Nephilim B-sides. I suppose one might note we got off easy. Just try and imagine how much worse this would have been had Vasquez deigned to pen some lyrics.
Roll The Dice, In Dust (Leaf Spain)
I know of at least one review favorably comparing this Stockholm duo’s electronic drone to Vangelis, and if that’s not all the purgative you need, what would you say to Vangelis sans not only drums but beats? All plonk amid the cheaply epic, what unites sixty plus minutes that seem much longer is the weakness for cloying melodies that defines trance at its cheesiest. The just-under-three minute “Idle Hands” offers a brief respite from the oppressive weight of surrounding tracks, three pushing past the 8 minute mark. Not that length is the problem – truth be known, I love me some kosmische, often the longer the better. But if Neu! grooved their way into the subconscious while Ash Ra Tempel calmly made room for both Apollonian and Dionysian urges, this doesn’t even have the guts to challenge Tangerine Dream in their movie soundtrack phase. How does one climax without reaching orgasm? Roll The Dice would like to show you.