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February Album Reviews

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Kris Kristofferson Feeling Mortal


If the United States has a Renaissance man, Kris Kristofferson is probably him.  The man has done it all: he’s been a Golden Glove boxer, a Rhodes scholar, a college football player at Pomona College, a summa cum laude graduate in Literature, an acclaimed actor (Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, A Star Is Born, Lone Star), a captain in the U.S. Army, and a helicopter pilot.
And, yes, Kristofferson is also a singer-songwriter – one of country music’s finest.  He’s a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, and his early-1970s albums Kristofferson and The Silver Tongued Devil and I are all-time classics.  In addition, his songs that other artists covered in the ’70s – Me and Bobby McGee (Janis Joplin), Help Me Make It Through the Night (Sammi Smith), Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down (Johnny Cash), and For the Good Times (Ray Price) – were chart-topping hits, making him a one-man Tin Pan Alley, the Bob Dylan of country music.  He even played with immortals like Cash, Willie Nelson, and Waylon Jennings in The Highwaymen.
In the twilight of his very remarkable life, Kristofferson – who’s now in his mid-70s – has just released his 28th album, Feeling Mortal.  The title says it all: the record is a meditative affair that finds him contemplating loss, mortality, memory, and aging.  It also completes a trilogy of albums produced by Don Was, which include 2006’s This Old Road and 2009’s Closer to the Bone and consider similar themes.  Bread for the Body, the third track on Feeling Mortal, aptly summarizes the entire trilogy: “Life is a song for the dying to sing.”
The short and efficient Feeling Mortal (no track exceeds 4 minutes) kicks off with the title track and Kristofferson’s unaccompanied voice.  He’s never sounded so gravelly, experienced, and exposed before.  From the outset, you know that this man longs to pull you into his soul.  As acoustic guitars join him, he sings about low self-esteem, life’s regrets, and death but offers praise to God for the life he’s led.

You’ll be reminded of Johnny Cash’s classic late-period American Recordings albums.  But Kristofferson writes his own stuff, so his performances are a lot more meaningful and heartfelt than Cash’s takes on Nine Inch Nail’s Hurt, U2’s One, and Soundgarden’s Rusty Cage, which often seemed like producer Rick Rubin just thought it would be cool (and commercial) to hear an old guy on the verge of death singing them.
Kristofferson remains a great storyteller. Mama Stewart recounts Stewart’s blindness, piety, and unexpected recovery of her sight – and transforms this memory into a story of the power of faith and how it can lead to seeing the world with “wonder and surprise.” On Castaway, Kristofferson tells a story about something he witnessed when flying over the Gulf of Mexico: an abandoned “fishing vessel drifting aimlessly.” He goes on to compare his soul to the ship, continuing his poetic talent for seeing the stuff or this world as a metaphor for his life’s journey.
You Don’t Tell Me What to Do revels in the outlaw spirit for which Kristofferson is known, before it’s undermined by the self-lacerating Stairway to the Bottom, which could be the 40-year-old cousin of Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down.  Kristofferson on Stairway sings about his transgressions and reminds himself, “no one’s watching but that mirror on the wall.”
Written with the late Shel Silverstein, My Heart Was the Last One to Know amazes with its incredible lyrics about the loss of love.  Kristofferson goes through all the body parts and how they find out about the end of the relationship before the heart – the most important part – does.
The final two tunes close the Feeling Mortal on a positive note.  The One You Chose, which starts off as another melancholy song about love lost, lightheartedly announces “I believe I just sang my way back in your heart.”  And Ramblin’ Jack pays tribute to Kristofferson’s friend Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and how he went to death without being afraid and ashamed for his outlaw life.
All in all, Feeling Mortal (KK Records) traces an arc from the despondency of the title track and Stairway to the Bottom to the purely joyful Ramblin’ Jack.  Let’s hope that Kristofferson’s journey from despair to elation is ours as well. – Paul Gleason

Rating: 4 out of 5
Camper Van Beethoven La Costa Perdida

Camper Van Beethoven La Costa Perdida
If you look up the Spanish word “perdida” in the dictionary, you’ll see definitions like “strayed”, “profligate”, and “misguided”. If you’re like David Lowery – lead singer and vocalist for the always-hard-to-define Camper Van Beethoven – the word could also be meant to be presented in its slang derivation – “loose woman.”
CVB’s new record – their first studio collaboration in 9 years – takes them back to their California roots, and harkens back to the nostalgia of their college years in Santa Cruz.
Crashing surf, and the images of the Pacific predominate here, but there is overcast and mist in the air, not the sun-splashed postcard images that the Western coast normally evokes. This quintet doesn’t really break new ground, and so it should be, as it is comforting to know that someone is out there is at least trying to make this sort of noise.
There are touches of Beach Boy’s kitsch in songs like Northern California Girls, and echoes of the Mothers of Invention in You’ve Got to Roll, Peaches in the Summertime, and especially the defining Too High for the Love-in, which closes with the beguiling demand to bring the character the anti-venom, and make him a sandwich.
Strangely, the title track is the one deviation from the intended formlessness – a Norteño-inflected tale of nasty doings taking place decidedly far from the coast in the backwaters of San Ardo, Fresno, and Brawley.  It’s a song that would feel more at home in Lowery’s other ensemble, Cracker, but there’s little denying that Jonathan Segel’s violin brings a special intensity to this dark tune.
The band’s other members, bassist Victor Krummenacher, guitarist Greg Lisher, and drummer Michael Urbano, are stellar as usual, and Chris Pederson makes an appearance by handling the percussion on two tracks.  Michael Wertz’s cover art – all red, black, white, and pixelated is way-cool. – Erich Anderson

Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Yo La Tengo Fade


Pop bliss – this is the state that Yo La Tengo creates in your mind the second you put on their latest disc, Fade. A miracle of an excellent groove, catchy melody, and terrific backing and harmony vocals, opening track Ohm puts you as close to pop nirvana as you can possibly get this side of Brian Wilson and Lennon-McCartney.
It’s terrific to see that a band that’s been releasing records since the Reagan Administration isn’t resting on its substantial laurels. Indeed, with classic albums as beautiful and rockin’ as Painful (1993), I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One (1997), and And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out (2000) under its belt, Yo La Tengo continues to evolve – and what’s more exciting – improve.
Up until 2003’s rather drab and disappointing Summer Sun, despite their trio of classic albums, Yo La Tengo seemed a sort of one-trick pony. They were, of course, the best in the business at that one trick – the way they used Ira Kaplan’s feedback-driven guitar as the sonic block from which they, paradoxically, crafted some of the most melodic and harmonious indie rock of the 1990s.
In dropping the emphasis on feedback on Summer Sun, Yo La Tengo committed a usually unforgivable sin of rock and roll – to fans at least. They sucked out their trademark style too quickly. Fans and critics alike were befuddled at what sounded awfully close to abandonment. They were the suddenly bloodless victims of a band that turned out to be a trio of vampires and not the loyal indie rock maestros who hailed not from nasty New York but from across the river in nice Hoboken!
Let’s face it: Yo La Tengo quite simply weren’t the Beatles or the Byrds or Bowie or Prince. Their listeners simply couldn’t – or wouldn’t – allow them to change that quickly. Indie rock is just as much about maintaining style as metal or prog or alt country – pick your poison. And in today’s era of MP3s and disposable music, how’s a band to survive without a recognizable style?
Considered in this light, Summer Sun is a brilliantly risky move – and with the release of Fade, Yo La Tengo shows us that they knew what they were doing all along. Moreover, Fade demonstrates that the excellently titled I Am Not Afraid of You and Will Beat Your Ass (2006) and the not-so excellently titled Popular Songs (2009) were a pre-game warm up for the big game of the new record.
Fade has everything you could possibly want from a Yo La Tengo album – and more. It impresses on so many different heights that scaling them in words is nigh near impossible.
Sung by drummer Georgia Hubley (she of the beautiful voice), closing track Before We Run perfectly highlights what Yo La Tengo is up to in building their heights. Ira’s light use of feedback and stunning arpeggios augment both Georgia’s thrilling drumbeat and the swelling horns and strings. Featuring Ira on acoustic guitar and a solid bass line by James McNew, the similarly arranged Cornelia and June, which is also sung by Georgia, is also simply gorgeous.
And Paddle Forward and Stupid Things feature the kind of atmospheric, melodic, and feedback-drenched groove that Ira, Georgia, and James have been perfecting since Painful. Songs such as these won’t leave longtime Yo La Tengo fans out in the lurch. Ira continues his excellence here and on other songs on Fade as the band’s primary singer.
Here’s hoping that the title Fade doesn’t indicate that Yo La Tengo is going away anytime soon. Why would they when they still have records this good in them? – Paul Gleason

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
New Order Lost Sirens


There’s rarely anything more exciting in rock than the beginning of a New Order album – and the opening of Lost Sirens is no exception.
I’ll Stay with You features everything that makes New Order great: a catchy Bernard Sumner melody, shimmering Sumner guitar riffs, synths and percussion that get your body moving, and, best of all, Peter Hook’s infectious and inspirational bass lines. The lyrics are, as usual, problematically silly, but with music this good, who cares?
Fans, however, must pause after hearing this track and sadly realize that it’s from a record of outtakes from 2005’s decent Waiting for the Sirens’ Call. In all likelihood, Lost Sirens is the last “new” New Order record that fans will ever hear. Founding members Sumner, drummer Stephen Morris, and keyboardist Gillian Gilbert have parted ways with Hook, whose powerfully melodic bass playing was always the most exciting thing about the group. Hooky now fronts Peter Hook and the Light and tours in seeming competition with his old bandmates (read: Sumner).
Having covered the New Order dirt, it’s time to get back to Lost Sirens – or, rather, back to 2001’s Get Ready and Waiting for the Sirens’ Call. It doesn’t matter which record we get back to because, in actuality, they’re all the same record.

Eight years had passed between the release of the excellent Republic in 1993 and the release of Get Ready. In hindsight it’s easy to see that Republic marked the last time that New Order would put out an album as a working band that recorded and toured regularly. In fact, in 1998, Gilbert herself left New Order as a touring member when she decided to devote her time to caring for her and Morris’ daughter Grace, who suffers from transverse myelitis.
Get Ready and Waiting for the Sirens’ Call (on which Gilbert didn’t appear at all) definitively proved that Republic – a fresh combination of guitar pop and club music that featured the classic tracks Regret, World, Ruined in a Day, and Avalanche – was the last innovative album from one of the most important bands of the post-punk era.
New Order’s two post-Republic records had their exciting moments but were hampered by the fact that even the least-informed fans knew that the material simply didn’t live up to tracks like Blue Monday, The Perfect Kiss, Bizarre Love Triangle, True Faith, Round & Round, and the aforementioned Regret. Sure, Crystal and Krafty were great New Order tracks, but the band was retreading what they’re really good at and not doing anything all that new.
Which brings us back to Lost Sirens. In the way that it rehashes New Order’s strengths, it’s definitely of a piece with Get Ready and Waiting for the Sirens’ Call. But this doesn’t mean that it’s a bad record – because the band is so damn good at what it does.
I’ll Stay with You isn’t the only winner in this set. The mellow Recoil is based on some excellent acoustic playing by Sumner (why this man hasn’t been recognized as one of the great guitarists of the post-punk era is a mystery). And the usually-nasally Sumner sounds great singing in a low range on the ominous California Grass.
And doesn’t Peter Hook have the most appropriate name in music? The man is a walking song hook. If the bass line on Shake It Up doesn’t convince you by itself, just focus your attention on the bass playing on all eight of the album’s songs. Lost Sirens is chock full of bass lines, which prove what’s been pretty obvious since the halcyon days of Joy Division and New Order: that Peter Hook is the most innovative, melodic bassist since Paul McCartney changed the instrument into a melodic force on the Paperback Writer/Rain single way back in 1966.
Pick up Lost Sirens for further confirmation of New Order’s importance as an incredible band that changed music in the 1980s and early 1990s. You don’t absolutely need it (their best work is obviously behind them), but grabbing it would be a great way to bookend your collection, which probably began with Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures in 1979. – Paul Gleason

Rating: 3 out of 5
Bad Religion True North

After 35 years and 15 albums, Los Angeles punk rock legends Bad Religion just released their new studio album, True North, on January 22nd via Epitaph Records, the now-hugely successful indie/punk label owned by Bad Religion founding member and guitarist/lyricist, Brett Gurewitz.
2010’s The Dissent of Man was a bit stale and boring, despite being chock full of BR’s trademark political/philosophical/socially-conscious lyrics that usually read more like an academic essay rather than those of a snotty punk rock band. (This makes sense considering singer/lyricist Greg Graffin earned a Ph.D. from Cornell University and has worn the hats of college professor and author on breaks from making music.) Despite its commentary, the music seemed to be lacking the aggression or energy of the band’s earlier records.
Well, with True North, the Bad Religion faithful have been rewarded. A mere handful of tracks in and the listener will quickly realize that Bad Religion has been born again. Hallelujah! While the band has not strayed from its time-tested formula of thought-provoking lyrics, Graffin’s stern vocals, and church choir-like vocal harmonizing set to driving melodic punk rock, the power and aggression of earlier recordings – such as Suffer (1988), No Control (1989), or Generator (1992) – can be heard on True North, especially in the title track, True North, as well as the songs Vanity, Fuck You, My Head Is Full of Ghosts, and The Island.
The buzz-saw 3-guitar attack of Mr. Brett, Greg Hetson, and Brian Baker is as aggressive as ever and Brooks Wackerman’s precision machine gun drumming punctuates it all, perfectly. Bad Religion has not sounded this impassioned in quite some time.
In the end, True North is easily their best record since 2002’s post-major label Process of Belief or maybe even 1994’s Stranger Than Fiction, and it is the most musically aggressive recording they have produced in many years.Rob Schromm

Rating: 4 out of 5
The Stone Foxes Small Fires


Small Fires, the new album from San Francisco blues/rock band The Stone Foxes, is their most versatile to date. Having released two previous full-lengths and played shows at Outside Lands and alongside ZZ Top, the Black Keys, and others, they’re ready to have a big 2013.
The record kicks off with lead single Everybody Knows, led by a howling harmonica and snarly blues/rock guitar riff. A retelling of Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart, the song’s rhythm, pacing and refrain (vocalist/drummer Shannon Koehler’s Everybody knows I’m a madman with a tell-tale heart) make it a prime candidate for ‘breakout single’ status. Check out its great music video too.
The Stone Foxes’ best attribute is their live show, as the four guys (drummer/vocalist Shannon Koehler, guitarist Spence Koehler, bassist/guitarist/drummer Aaron Mort and keyboardist Elliot Peltzman) play with a passion and spirit well beyond their years (and indicative of their talents).
Songs like Ulysses Jones (another story-telling adventure sung this time by Spence) and Cotto (a soulful ode to a boxer highlighted by its quiet-loud dynamics and understated rage) capture the explosive and incendiary nature of their live show perfectly.
Battles, Blades & Bones explores new territory– a somber, piano-driven condemnation of the realities of war in contemporary society, it shows their depth and maturity on a level they haven’t really explored before.
Other key songs include the buoyant Talk to Louise, the shifting soul-searching of So Much Better and the slow burn of Jump in the Water (which bottles their live show’s fury in the same way Ulysses Jones and Cotto do earlier on the record).
By the time the album-closing and self-reflecting Goodnight Moon comes to an end, you’re left with one hell of a powerful record. The Stone Foxes have been working hard for a handful of years (and a few lineup changes), and with Small Fires they’ve fully come into their own, creatively-speaking. The addition of keyboardist Elliott Peltzman has served their music quite well, adding in layers of additional melodies and power to their already-formidable musical approach.
Don’t sleep on this album – let this be your invitation to get on board now, so you don’t end up being one of those people whose heads turn in the coming months. – Adrian Garro

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Richard Thompson Electric


Richard Thompson is one of the world’s greatest living guitarists – a 6-string wizard whose skills are rivaled by just a handful of fellow masters of his generation: Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Keith Richards.
So why hasn’t Thompson received the recognition of the three former Yardbirds and the once and future Rolling Stone?
For starters, Thompson’s primary instrument is the acoustic guitar (he won the Orville H. Gibson award for best acoustic player in 1991), and electric guitarists always have more cred with fans and critics alike.  Indeed, Thompson comes from – and helped invent – England’s revolutionary folk-rock movement of the 1960s.
To a man, Page, Clapton, Beck, and Richards earned their chops through playing the electric blues and, considering their occult interests, perhaps Page and Richards followed Robert Johnson to the crossroads and sold their souls to Satan in return for their playing prowess.
It’s safe to say that Thompson never sold his soul – or, at least, he wasn’t obvious about it. Never flashy (you’ll hardly ever see him without his simple black beret), he didn’t co-write Sympathy for the Devil or don a dragon Nudie suit and mesmerize the crowd with hand signals, à la Keith and Jimmy.
So it’s excellent that the brilliant yet understated Thompson is the true cult artist, despite his membership in the seminal 1960s folk-rock band Fairport Convention and 40+ years of consistently terrific solo albums and collaborations with his ex-wife Linda.
What makes Electric, Thompson’s most recent release so cool is that it sounds like he’s still got something to prove – namely that he’s more than just an innovative acoustic master but also an electric guitar guru who can hold his own with – and perhaps even beat – his great contemporaries at their own game.

The record’s title doesn’t lie: Electric is a veritable clinic of guitar virtuosity, in which the eclectic Thompson shows everyone how it’s done.

On the opening track Stony Ground, Thompson shows off his chops as an electric craftsman, unleashing a wicked psychedelic solo smack in the middle of a folk stomp.  Sally B mesmerizes with a folky vocal melody that follows Thompson’s instrument note for note, before veering off into another couple of mind-expanding solos.
Then there’s Good Things Happen to Bad People – a Beatle-esque piece of pop heaven, with an instantly memorable tune and rad solo on which Thompson takes the chime-like tones of George Harrison and Roger McGuinn and makes them his own.
The folky and delicate Salford Sunday features Thompson showing his magical penchant for making one guitar sound like a full orchestra.  An acoustic-based ditty – Where’s Home? – is a tremendous folk song, with a catchy melody, great vocal harmonies, and solid violin accompaniment.  And the Renaissance-flavored Snow Goose shows Thompson in full-folk form, as he sings a beautiful, slow, and melancholy tune to a stunningly enchanting acoustic guitar accompaniment.
Equally slow and beautiful, My Enemy, Another Small Thing in Her Favour, and Saving the Good Stuff for You (the album’s closer) are introspective reflections on love that feature the best and most personal lyrics on Electric.  Thompson’s stark poetry often goes overlooked amid all his instrumental virtuosity.
Definitely Thompson’s best record in who knows how long, Electric solidifies his position as one of the greatest – if not the greatest and most versatile – guitarist to emerge from England in the 1960s.  Electric is nakedly beautiful, thrillingly trippy, totally folky, and, above all, extremely confident.  You need this record now.
Upon release [Feb. 5 in the U.S.] Electric will be available in the Rock Cellar Magazine Store here.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
My Bloody Valentine mbv


Astrology can be used to explain a lot – even if it’s just a useful fiction. Two of the most groundbreaking innovators in popular music over the past 50 years – The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson and My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields – are Gemini.
Wilson and Shields share an energetic imagination that seemingly knows no bounds. But their at-times indecisive, restless, and nervous temperaments often compromise their ability to finish projects (more on unfinished projects below).
The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, of course, was a baroque-pop masterpiece that changed everything about rock music. As the album’s composer, producer, central performer, and arranger, Wilson redefined what a rock album could be.
Wilson complimented traditional rock instrumentation with instruments (the Theremin, the bass harmonica, etc.) that had never been used in rock music before. He arranged these instruments using classical orchestration techniques to provide complex backing tracks over which he and the rest of The Beach Boys sang lyrics about a young person’s journey from youthful optimism to the acceptance of the inevitability of loss. And the key songs – Wouldn’t It Be Nice, God Only Knows, I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times, and Caroline No – are unrivaled in their beauty.
Which brings us back to Shields and My Bloody Valentine. Like Wilson, Shields crafted an unprecedented masterpiece – Loveless – that upon its release in 1991, had the musical world asking, How did he do that?
Shields took the noise rock and feedback-drenched textures of Sonic Youth, The Jesus and Mary Chain, and Dinosaur Jr. and made them beautiful. Songs like To Here Knows When, When You Sleep, and Sometimes demonstrated Shields taking the inside-out approach of foregrounding the sonic waves that he created using heavy distortion, his tremolo bar, and unconventional tunings. He put his and fellow guitarist Belinda Butcher’s atmospheric vocals and sample lines – which provided the songs with ambiguous melodies – low in the mix, along with Debbie Googe’s bass, Colm Ó Cíosóig’s drums, and Shields’ own sequencers.
As the realization of Shields’ inside-out method, Loveless made distortion and feedback beautiful and influenced all the shoegazing and post-rock bands that followed, as well as less adventurous records like Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream and Yo La Tengo’s Painful. The Verve, Sigur Rós, and Mogwai, for example, wouldn’t exist without Shields.
Sadly, Loveless led to another parallel with Wilson. Just as the aborted SMiLE album – which was set to be the record on which Wilson outdid Pet Sounds – sent Wilson into depression and erratic participation in The Beach Boys, Loveless paralyzed Shields, who suffered a downward spiral of depression and writer’s block.  Between 1991 and 1996 My Bloody Valentine only managed to eke out two new recordings – both cover songs for Louis Armstrong and Wire tribute albums respectively – with Shields breaking up the band in 1997 and spending the following 16 years in sporadic activity. He played with Primal Scream for a few years, provided sonic accompaniment for some of Patti Smith’s poetry readings, did some remixes for other artists, and worked on the soundtrack for Sofia Coppola’s film Lost in Translation.
But, most importantly, Shields reunited with My Bloody Valentine in 2008 for a tour. Around that time, he promised a new My Bloody Valentine record, whose self release last week as m b v was a sweet surprise for Shields’ followers and anyone interested in experimental music.
For starters, m b v isn’t all that new. The album’s genesis goes as far back as 1996, when the original band tried to record the follow up to Loveless. Shields then worked on the album sporadically between 2007 and 2012, recording all the instrumentation himself, with the assistance of his non-My Bloody Valentine member brother Jimi on drums. Ó Cíosóig re-recorded the drum parts for the official release.
Perhaps aware of his relation to the one-time leader of The Beach Boys, Shields has said that m b v is more impressionistic and akin to Brian Wilson’s SMiLE than Loveless. He recorded m b v in fits and starts, wanting to see what would happen when he put the parts together at the end.
So m b v isn’t Loveless Part II. The record sounds less produced – a return to the band’s first album Isn’t Anything, minus the abrasiveness of some of that record’s noisier sections. The de-emphasis on production allows for roomier mixes, in which the vocals jump to the forefront – at least for My Bloody Valentine. The lyrics are still intentionally vague (Shields has always claimed that music should be as subjective an experience for the listener as it can be), but the vocals and vocal melodies convince you that Shields and Butcher are great singers.
In addition, the mixes on m b v don’t re-create Loveless’ wall of sound: percussion and bass are easier to make out. The record, therefore, feels more democratic, even though Shields recorded most of it himself.
It’s too early to tell whether m b v has any classic songs. Like SMiLE, music this impressionistic needs you to commit yourself to it, to live with it for a while, before you pass judgment. But, initially, Is This and Yes (featuring Butcher’s stunning realization of Shields’ vocal melody and a gorgeous organ as the its sole backing), New You, In Another Way, and Wonder 2 fit the bill. They’re gems of arrangement, innovation, occasional noise, and melodic beauty.
Despite the passage of time and its lengthy conception, Shields has succeeded in delivering a new My Bloody Valentine record – one that neither tries to outdo Loveless nor to match it. M b v stands on its own as an exciting record, the creation of one of the most exciting musicians of our time.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

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