Hello, all. I’m a little late on the turnaround this time, but this stuff all merits coverage. In this installment I’ve included a review of a book of poetry by an underground writer who may not reside in the underground much longer. But first, I want to mention a frisky 7” that landed here a month or so ago by a duo called The Hecks on Moniker Records. Zachary Chidlow Hebert and Andrew Allen Mosiman probably aren’t all that concerned about sounding like they fit into any certain category. The a-side, “Trust and Order,” is a lo-fi exercise with a simple, repeating tinny guitar figure and distorted, semi-vocal that somehow contorts itself into a nice catchy little ditty. The b-side, “The Time I Play With My Puppy,” goes beyond deconstructed and just breaks down entirely, reducing itself to a sort of musique concrete experiment that reminded me of the early 90s noise band Puff Tube, and that ends with a sustained feedback tone and a mechanical moan. Seems totally pretentious on the surface, but the principle of reversal applies here and that makes it totally un-pretentious. The record is a thick, heavy-duty pressing, limited to 300 copies (100 on white vinyl), with a nice colored sleeve.
Eksi Ekso, Archfiend (Self-released)
Now here’s a concept album: “A modern up-tempo art-pop record about one of America’s first documented serial killers.” That’s how Tom Korkidis is introducing his third release as Eksi Ekso. The basis for the concept lies with Erik Larson’s book, The Devil and the White City, a tome that recalls the little known story of H.H Holmes, who was a murdering doctor, architect, entrepreneur, alchemist, father and philanderer. The musical structure for the band has shifted from elaborate orchestration on the previous album, Brown Shark, Red Lion, to something that has been stripped all the way down to a trio, with the vocals being the primary focus (“Blood Rivals”), as they compete with the synths on most tracks. Scott Solter, who has also worked with St. Vincent, Mountain Goats and John Vanderslice, could have punched up the production a little, but that’s a minor gripe. The songs don’t need a whole lot of help. Lyrically, I’m not really sure what’s going on, other than the overriding conceptual narrative, because I don’t know the details of the story, but the vocals and melodies continue to draw one in regardless. Vocally, Korkidis sounds like Paul Weller on “Gold Cures,” “Writhe” and especially the excellent “Glass Damsels,” and he can work a song pretty well with those flexible pipes. I can understand why this band has received some glowing reviews from My Old Kentucky Blog, Alternative Press and All Music Guide. More than a quirky, conceptual curiosity, this one’s a creeped-out winner.
The Kingsbury Manx, Bronze Age (Odessa)
The Kingsbury Manx (Bill Taylor, Ryan Richardson, Clarque Blomquist, Paul Finn) has a recording history that dates back to their 2000 debut. Over the course of six albums (one double album) and an EP, their North Carolina roots belie their sound as they explore the nooks and crannies, alcoves and niches of a refined, artful post-psych-chamber pop that is solely their own concoction. As they moved from Overcoat Recordings to Yep Roc and, now, to Odessa, they‘ve settled into a slot fairly well removed from the hustle and bustle of the mainstream music world. I’m assuming that their fans have followed them from label to label, because after the early buzz surrounding their debut they’ve slowly fallen off the indie rock radar screen. They’ve never really been trendy, despite that early hype. But, they’ve toured all over the continent for the last twelve years and that has obviously been a key to their staying power. Their abstract approach is not hard to get next to, but it is, maybe, a little too smart for most of the casual listening audience out there. Relatively heady, yes, but they’re also mildly foggy or even intoxicated at times, busting out of the box and blazing their own trail. Neither guitars nor keyboards ever dominate the songs, and they almost always strike the right balance between the two. “Handsprings” (complete with trumpets), and the bouncy Kinks-like “Solely Bavaria,” are definitely two of the most sprightly tunes in their canon, even with the minor-key piano threading through the former. “Lyon” is the most instantly accessible song on this record, especially compared to the more obtuse melodies. When they lean one way there’s also a hint of mid-period XTC. Then they go in a completely different direction and hit you with “Concubine”, a swell folk-rock number suitable for inclusion on any mix disc, and one of the best songs I’ve heard so far this year. It’s two and a half minutes of near- perfection. They close, appropriately, with the waltzy “Ashes to Lashes,” another song that sounds like no other band could have created it. Overall, a smashing success, I’d say. Odessa should give this record a big push in the indie/college radio world this spring and summer. The full album is also available to stream on the Odessa web site.
Kait Lawson, Until We Drown (Madjack)
This is an intimidating debut album by a singer-songwriter who has already built up some serious musical momentum. I use the word “intimidating” because if this is what Kait Lawson has created at this early point in her musical life, the sky’s the limit on where she could go from here. The bar is set high with the tuneful first track, “Take Your Charge,” but she’s a little shy out of the blocks, holding back slightly. Things get more difficult from there as the songs become more complex, but Ms. Kait blossoms and shows she’s no lightweight; and there’s no fluff on this album. Her band here is a gathering of some seasoned pros from Memphis, and on a song entitled “Memphis” she finds some earthy soul, and she finds her natural singing voice. “Spin Me Around” is just flat-out excellent. And when she lets fly with the line, “Spin me around, like my head is doin’ now…” it feels like she’s finally free as a singer, holding nothing back. It feels fully authenticated at this point. This is one of the best songs of the year, so far. Lyrically, she goes right for the jugular, and in a few passages presents a starkly honest Self-portrait. Just check “I Feel Like,” with this great couplet: “…I feel like shit, I feel like dirt, like all I do is hurt…”). “Omaha” and “Until We Drown” are almost like two sides of Shelby Lynne, the shit-kicker honky-tonk on the one hand and the slightly inebriated, brokenhearted pathos on the other, and she does both equally well. An amazing debut, by any measure, especially with all the somewhat, slightly, similar-sounding fare out there, but Kait Lawson rises above most of them. It’s headed for my best albums of 2013 list as soon as we conclude our business here.
Skiggy Rapz, Satellites (Beats Broke)
This just in: Austin, TX label releases new album in early 2013 by Dutch rapper Skiggy (pronounced Skid- jee) Rapz and it just might be the hip-hop album of the year. You heard it here first. All the other MCs can take a backseat because this “White”? dude with the glasses and the golf cap can light it up like nobody’s bizness. It’s almost indescribable how good he is, especially considering his relatively limited recorded output. His first album, Boat Drinks, came out in 2004, and in 2009 he dropped an EP entitled, Bang To The Boogie, but he has appeared on more than a dozen Japanese compilations. He did a showcase show at SxSW in 2011, and has opened for KRS-One and Kanye West. A few of his songs have even been licensed to Jersey Shore and The Real World. Looks like this might be his breakthrough moment in the American market. His flow is rapid-fire and tight as a mosquito’s ass, for the most part, but it’s also smooth as hell when necessary. Some of his vocal style is clearly rooted in the various facets of edgy early 90s hip-hop, as is the eclectic array of beats and tracks he reels out so effortlessly. The opener, “Natural Born,” is a primo opening cut and it readies the troops for what lies ahead, and the super-catchy “Satellites” (featuring Tienus) should be a huge pop single if there’s any musical justice anywhere in this world; and then comes the utterly astonishing “Shilly Tilly,” with a simple but crazy good hook looped into the uber-righteous chorus. Skiggy’s ability to partner the pop side of the songs with his un-pop-like rhyming style is quite noteworthy. He has a keen musical sense and you can hear it on how the songs are constructed. “Shilly Tilly” has such an immediately infectious appeal that I must have played it seven or eight times upon first hearing it. I couldn’t get enough. Then I couldn’t get it out of my head, or the charmingly perfect voice of Astrid Kunst, who sings the chorus. Too bad it’s her only appearance on the album. What’s up with that? Skiggy supplies the beatmaking and incongruously also plays keyboards and guitar throughout. He may have already sold part of his soul to the Jersey Shores and McD’s of the world, but his songs are so good it’s hard to begrudge him a decent living. If The Situation can be a (choke, vomit) multi-millionaire, who the hell are any of us to deny someone with actual artistic skills the opportunity to cash in? This guy is some kind of fucking freak, and I can’t quite figure him out. As my old friend Jack used to say, “There’s not another cat on the planet like him.” Unfortunately, no LP release for this album. Two thumbs down on that one, Beats Broke.
Bury My Clothes by Roger Bonair-Agard (Haymarket Books) 167 pages
Roger Bonair-Agard is a two-time National Poetry Slam Champion and he has appeared on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam. He is also the artistic director of the Louder ARTS Project in NYC. He has authored two other volumes of poetry: Tarnish and Masquerade and Gully. The introduction on the back cover of Bury My Clothes calls this book “a meditation on violence, race and the place in art at which they intersect.” It’s divided into nine sections, with headings like Parable of Salt, Sangre Grande, The Blessed and the Blooded and The Black Album. There is a total of fifty-six separate pieces, listed in the table of contents in such a way as if to suggest there is a linearity of thought connecting them as they proceed forward. A prose piece entitled “fable towards becoming a poet” is a good place to begin: “On a morning when he walked to school down the main road/across the lush botanical gardens, his top button undone/so he could hear the humming of his own chest, mimic/the mad fluster of the bird’s wings, he understood himself/immediately in possession of a history he did not yet understand.” Even his spikier pieces have a good rhythmic flow. Check this passage from Today’s Math: “The Caribs did not kill off the Arawaks like we were taught in primary school. The Caribs and Arawaks managed to live side by side for centuries before Columbus showed up. This is today’s math; today’s lesson on how to build a village like a fortress; how your descendants survive despite every attempt to kill you.” His work is loud and proud, from the shout out to Arsenio Hall in Fade to Black and the quotes from RZA and Lauryn Hill, to a piece entitled, The Night Biggie Died. His use of language is wide open, drawing from any and all colloquial corners, using numerous devices, stylized at times on the page, but not overly so in the execution. This is an excellent collection that challenges your consciousness (particularly if you’re White and radical) and calls you back repeatedly.