Well, we made it to 2012. Good for us. Happy to be moving on. The Mayans claim the world is ending in December, and there’s a lot to do, so we better get busy. First, I have some loose ends from 2011 to attend to. Along with a few new records, I’ve included reviews of a couple holdovers that arrived after the end of the year wrap-up was completed. Also included is a short list of recent books that I highly recommend, and that we just didn’t have time to deal with before the holidays. Here’s to finding the best of us in the new year. Thanks for riding, and reading.
Reviews: Cardinal, Casiokids, Loney Dear
It took eighteen years, and probably lots and lots of coaxing from friends and fans, but Richard Davies and Eric Matthews have finally released their second album as Cardinal. For the most part, the wait was not without some reward, but, come on, eighteen years? The two-headed monster they created on the first album is still recognizable here, and while that album has achieved an almost mythical status as one of the most inexplicably significant recordings of the 1990s, it’s good to hear some asymmetry and evolution in their shimmery Beatle-esque universe. “Northern Soul,” is a smooth, jangly opening track that lays asphalt for “Carbolic Smoke Ball,” which is an example of some fine neo-psychedelic pop. “Her” has a slack-jawed, 70s throwback, singer-songwriter quality, and the horns are reminiscent of Josh Rouse on his album, Home. And the very cool “General Hospital” is like a Mercury Rev hallucinogenic. You’ve got to hand it to them; somehow, despite their varied solo careers, after all this time Davies and Matthews fell right back into a symbiosis on this record. A little slight, yes, but when it clicks it’s better than a bonsai tree up your bum.
Casiokids received a boatload of good press for their 2010 singles collection, and expectations were high for the follow-up. The title of this album translates as “the revelation over the mountain,” and while that might come across as too pretentious the music they generally create isn’t pretentious at all. In fact, it’s quite welcoming most of the time, and they do a decent job of covering the musical waterfront, as far as retro-dance pop is concerned. It’s hard to pigeonhole them based on any one track. They can be light and bouncy and, sometimes, they can mellow down to the point of smooth and easy, with an added quirk or two, but they never get lazy with it. They can also get restless and dabble in some itchy and scratchy post-new wave. “Dresinen” and “Aldri ska meha det goy” are both very good pop songs, and it’s impossible to figure out exactly where they’ll go with any of this at any given moment. The second half of the record has a strong 80s pull, and I hear some OMD, among others, buried in there, but Casiokids continually toss in their own kookiness. “Der haster!” is loopy and invitingly weird, and “Golden Years” is a high energy jam with great vocals. It’s an eccentric kind of dance-pop with enough freaky personality to hold almost anyone’s attention for at least a few songs.
Loney Dear is a Swedish musician named Emil Svanangen and he’s established a respectable global following. This is his sixth album and his second for Polyvinyl. It was conceived after Svanangen performed some shows in Sweden with various chamber orchestras. He decided to write some songs geared toward performance in bigger halls, and the results are understated but impressive. With lots of initial open space in the mix, “I Want Your Name” sets a lofty and ponderous mood that spikes into some sharper tones about halfway in. The slow, somber mock falsetto might make some people mindful of Bon Iver, and Mercury Rev might well be a point of reference for “D Major According To Tomas Transtromer,” but every song finds a home of its own no matter what musical neighborhood it’s in. The use of a church bell, horns and keyboards with the ethereal vocals brings about a ghostly dialectic of organic and synthetic sounds.
This erratic and entertaining recording is the brainchild of a band that formed in Athens, GA in the 90s with a split mindset that couldn’t decide if it wanted to be like the “Jesus & Mary Chain on Nyquil or play one chord for 45 minutes.” The mainstream media embraced their eponymous debut album, with Rolling Stone going so far as to refer to it as a “masterpiece.” They subsequently moved to Portland to release their second album, Longplay 2. Then they moved back to Athens and spent the last two years recording Weekends. Joining them are their notable friends B.P. Helium (of Montreal) and John Fernandez (Olivia Tremor Control). The results are hit or miss, but mostly they hit. The backstory is that the lyrical inspiration comes from the “disintegration of a romantic relationship.” “Funny Girl” wants to be sort of melancholy like the Magnetic Fields, “Just4kix” is weird, noisy digitalism and “Baby Blue” is good ethereal slow-core, as is “Going Home.” On the downside, however, there’s “Ballerina,” with badly over-processed vocals and a bitter techno flavor. But, then there’s the closer, “Unplug Me,” with its sweet ambient drone, an avenue they should definitely explore more often. They can write a decent song. Keep on keepin’ on.
Andre Williams is 75 and still going strong, based on what’s contained on this five-song EP recorded with his current touring band. While he’s been residing underground for the vast majority of his five-decade career, Williams enjoyed an upswing in notoriety in the mid-90s when there was a brief American blues revival that saw players in their twilight years like Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside suddenly befriended by indie rock bands and getting record deals. Williams’ over-the-top salaciousness and distinctive vocals caught on with a wider audience, and he has been savvy enough to ride the wave for the last decade and a half. The sleaze factor is dialed down and this band plays a credible brand of R&B with Williams sounding like he’s all in on the title track. Urge Overkill’s Nash Kato makes a brief guest appearance as well. “Hot Coffee” is smooth and sexy and “Babblin’ Brook” is a good R&B/rock-a-billy hybrid that shows off his vocal dexterity. There’s good energy throughout and nothing is mawkishly nostalgic or overtly commercialized, although there are a few parts that made me think of the J.Geils Band. It should enjoy some college-radio airplay. Pravda is an underground label that has been swimming against the tide for more than twenty years, and God bless ‘em for still hanging in and rolling the dice every time out.