Spring cleaning reviews from the heap

Anthony Mark Happel

A detail from Mexicans with Guns' album.

A detail from Mexicans with Guns' album.

Greetings from sunny, drunken Costa Rica… I’m here in Guanacaste soaking up some 90 degree weather, eating lots of rice and beans and imbibing in the national beverage, Imperial beer. The beaches are not too crowded this time of year and the blue Pacific is warm and salty. We met the son of WWII war hero Sid Goldstein in Playas del Coco at an internet cantina, and we also met a fellow Wisconsinite who came here 20 months ago, landed in a bar, got drunk and bought the place… What a country!

Before venturing down to the Central American isthmus I had been doing some Black Orchid spring cleaning and going through the last of the most recent arrivals, and I’ve included the four best discs from a fairly large pile. And it just so happens that all four entries share a kind of singularity of musical vision that couldn’t be more different from the others, and yet almost completely defines their identities, each within their own unique musical niche. Of particular note is the record by Withered Hand. It’s the result of a number of disparate influences that come together in a fission-like way on every track, creating a vocabulary all its own. In other words, the guy can write songs. Hope there’s something here that compels someone to seek out some of this music. Back soon with a few more reviews, and until then, it’s time for another cerveza fria from the pool bar here in Playa Panama… Keep on keepin’ on…

Hammer The Fingers No More, Black Shark (Churchkey)

Never heard of this Durham, NC label, but, I suspect, more people will be hearing about this band on the strength of this album. That is, if they get a break or two. Hammer the Fingers No More pop up with a simple, pushy beat on the opening song, “Atlas of the Eye,” and they introduce a jangly guitar sound that stays with them throughout. They wander around a wee bit, but they find decent songs just about everywhere they turn. While they sound like no other band in particular, there is an inescapable post-Pavement quality that also encapsulates almost everything post-90s that is any kind of transfigured, lo-to-mid-fi jangle rock. Having said that, “Shark” is the only song that might be labeled “Pavement-esque,”and that is certainly an amorphous descriptor.

As things move forward it does become clear the jangly guitars are a little thin, and they could definitely crank the gain up on a song like “Leroy,” for example. They do have a solid sense of melody, and they aren’t just simple hooks, as exhibited on “Thunder & Rain.” A little more energy in the vocals on that song would take it even higher. Punchier production would also make a song like “It’s About Caring” really jump out of the speakers. If they keep pushing the bar with more complex songs and they hook up with a producer who really knows how to raise the stakes, they’ll be well on their way.

Josh Freese, My New Friends EP (Outerscope)

Josh Freese played drums for The Vandals and A Perfect Circle, and he’s also done studio work with Devo, NIN, Juliana Hatfield, The Replacements and Guns ‘n’ Roses, and that’s just part of his resume. Get your head around that for a moment. This EP follows his talked-about second album, Since 1972, which featured a unique 11-tiered pricing set-up that is a story unto itself. For example, you could pay $7 for the album download, or $250 for dinner with Freese at P.F. Chang’s (where I imagine he would play table-drums with chopsticks), or $75,000 which would involve Freese joining your band for a month, and something about a flying trapeze lesson. All 25 of the $250 packages sold out, as did several others. The $75,000 package is still available.

At any rate, this five-song EP is consists of songs about some of the people who bought some version of the second record. Odd as that sounds, it works out okay and the songs all bring some good energy. “You and Me and The Tuba Tree” jumps out of the box with a Foo Fighters-type riff and “All The Way from FLA” and “The Best That I Could Do” send out some serviceable So-Cal quasi-pop-punk. A little more focus on the vocals wouldn’t hurt. He’s got more wackiness planned for future releases. Check out his website.

Mexicans With Guns, Ceremony (Innovative Leisure)

San Antonio cut-up stylist Ernest Gonzales started his musical ride producing remixes for others, and eventually found himself performing with artists like Peanut Butter Wolf, Daedelus and Jogger. MWG was started as a way of “exploring traditional Hispanic folk music as an electronic artist…” His brand of Hispan-tronica is full of sounds and textures and offers something for almost everyone.

“Jaguar” is fuzzy bits laid over shuffle beats. “Restart” (featuring Sasha from Jahcoozi) gets kind of Euro-funky with some slinky turns. “Deities” is busy to the point of being cluttered. “Highway To Hell” (featuring Freddie Gibbs) shows off some groovy hip-hop with a tough-ass vocal. “Got Me Fucked Up” (featuring Nocando) is some so-so street shit with a good, loose flow. Unfortunately, when all is said and done, it’s kind of pedestrian. There’s just nothing special going on musically underneath most of the guest vocals, other than some bleeps and some cheap, Casio-sounding percussion. It might be beneficial to flesh out the arrangements and maybe even add some more live instrumentation (guitar, bass, etc.) next time out.

Withered Hand, Good News (Absolutely Kosher)

Edinburgh, Scotland’s Dan Willson is Withered Hand, and this album is the North American edition of an album released in the U.K. in 2009 following a couple of EPs. In addition to the single CD version, there is a special two-disc version that comes with buttons, stickers and a signed note and drawing that is limited to 200. There is also a white vinyl pressing that is limited to 200, as well. Jarvis Cocker, of Pulp, is apparently a big fan, as is Frightened Rabbit’s Scott Hutchison who raved: “This album is a companion for life.” That’s high praise, indeed, coming from a guy who is at the top of his game right now. I don’t know if I’d go as far as Hutch, but after listening to Good News twice it’s becoming more evident what all the fuss is about.

Willson’s art-damaged alt-folk, as some refer to it, is urbane, profane, mischievous and rapturous. The first song, “Providence,” is dreamy and terrestrial at the same time, and it isn’t bad, but it’s kind of understated for an opener. “Cornelake” feels like a bit of a goof-off, paying homage to The Vaselines (?) in one line, and then going crude with the couplet: “I’d do anything to get my dick inside her/But that’s not what she wants to hear me say…” but, in the end, it holds up to scrutiny. “New Dawn,” released as a single, is a clear-eyed take on The Wedding Present, and the best song here, and more of that would be welcome anytime. Mojo magazine gave this album four stars, and that might be overstating things, but Willson can already stand unashamed among the better songwriters playing in this field.

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