Reviews: Airstrip, The Howling Hex, Cy Dune

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Airstrip, Willing (Holidays For Quince)

Founder and frontman Matthew Park calls Airstrip’s music “nightmare pop,” but, I might opt for something slightly more conventional, like psych-pop. Park previously played in an obscure duo called Veelee, with his former girlfriend, Ginger Wagg. Drummer John Crouch also plays in Caltrap. The self- applied “nightmare” moniker is likely due more to the themes inherent in the songs than it is the overall sound of the band. “Middle of the Night” and “Sleepy” are both pulsating and quasi-hypnotic, and there’s some kind of digital delay effect happening at times, but there’s also something emotionally murky underneath it all. Then they loosen up a lot on “Bitching Hour” (great title), and they practically sound like a different band, from out of nowhere. And while none of what they do is ever overtly bottom heavy, in any normal sense, on “Hit A Wall” they do punch the accelerator and unleash a bass- laden, power-pop tune of very high regard, and it may well be the best song on the album. In fact, I think it is. In the end, if I had to describe them to someone in a phrase I’m not sure I could do so. There’s way too much going on here. More “pop” than “psych”(pop-psych-ology!), but the approach is wide open and the songs all exhibit lots of imagination. Even the less adventurous among your group of friends may find something to latch onto.

Brooke Campbell, The Escapist (Self-released)

This is an unassuming 4-song EP, at first glance, but once it warms up it turns out some very solid songs with some fine lilting vocals laid atop complex and contorted melody lines. “Ice Covers the North” really shows off Campbell’s muy bonita soprano. The bare bones quality of “Sparkle” gives off some luminous light with a swell violin-vocal interplay. And “Invalid” is a spare piano ballad in the spirit of Tori Amos. She’s pretty soulful for a white girl, on this small sampling, and she’s clever enough to weave in and around those difficult, floaty melodies that hang in the air throughout the album. Some might say she sounds like Edie Brickell, but the tone of her voice is better and more appealing. She’s a talented performer who has obviously only scratched the surface of what she’s capable of. The key is to be able to get the ideas, if they’re any good, from your head into the world intact. Ms. Campbell’s got it goin’ on so far.

Cy Dune, No Recognize (Family Tree)

This is Seth Olinsky of Akron/Family going off on his own. He’s also played with Rhys Chatham, Michael Gira and others, and on this left-of-center 6-song EP (only four are “real” songs) it appears he wants to bring back all the craziness he’s been a part of together again, and then deconstruct it all again. In 2011 he moved to the wilds of the Sonoran Desert to do some woodshedding, with the intent of recording “a primitive American blues story,” as he called it, with just an acoustic guitar and a ¼” Ampex reel-to-reel tape recorder. That experiment was an extension of a project involving some 100 songs that resided in a notebook. The quasi-incoherent logic behind it incorporates guitarist John Fahey’s discovery of Skip James and open-D tuning, early Dylan, Leadbelly, Cryptology and the work of Michael Hurley. He’s joined by a bassist and drummer on this, and the songs seem to crawl out from a fractured intellectual ooze (the four that are actual finished songs), but they evolve into multi-layered creations that could go anywhere at any time. He goes garage on “Resentment,” for cryin’ out loud, and it marks a musical transition compared to his day job, yes, but there just isn’t enough material here to make any kind valid judgment about it all, or to assess how this should be framed against the lofty artistic achievements of Akron/Family. The songs all sound like messy works-in-progress that were all fighting for recognition among the 95 others in his notebook. Why these? What sets these apart? Next time, let us hear more, so we can comprehend the scope. In keeping with the Luddite qualities on display, this EP is also being released on cassette tape by Burger Records. Good for them. Maybe they threw in a bonus track or two.

The Howling Hex, The Best Of… (Drag City)

On one level, the notion that there is such a thing as “the best of the Howling Hex” flies in the face of the basic concept of the Howling Hex. Neil Michael Hagerty’s detuned, dissonant, awkward, uncomfortable guitars (and other noises) are by their very nature anti-commercial. They are not easily absorbed, and they are, generally, not for the masses. Of course, when you interpose yourself into his music, which is how you have to engage this stuff, you are often taken aback by the upside down beauty that emerges from the ugly. “Primetime Clown” is a really good example, but, on the other hand, “Green Limo” struggles to bust through the monotonic/monomaniacal beat, and the joke starts to wear thin quickly as it drags the album down. When he does let it all hang out it’s like a perverted force of nature; the 24-minute long “Trashcan Bahamas” could stand as an EP all by itself and confuse the shit out of 99.4% of the population, complete with incessant marching band beats and birdman, David Thomas-esque vocalizing. After a half hour of the same rhythmic tendencies over and over, all the songs synch together into a multi-limbed monstrosity. Just as it was meant to be, even though it’s actually a comp. of miscellaneous tracks. Come to think of it, I take back what I said at the start of this review. The Best of the Howling Hex is exactly that kind of ungainly, “up is down, left is right,” gutter poetry that emerges in your mind’s ear after sitting through this set. This world demands it. In a world where nothing makes sense, it makes perfect sense.

Various Artists, R&B Hipshakers Volume 3: Just A Little Bit Of The Jumpin’ Bean (VampiSoul)

This is the third release in this excellent series by this amazing Spanish label that has really made a name for itself as a quality go-to R&B/soul/funk re-issue source. It contains a wide-ranging 20 tracks dating from 1955 through 1964, and, like the first two volumes, it includes some truly obscure gems. There’s the super-smooth R&B of Linda Hopkins on “Mama Needs Your Lovin’ Baby.” There’s the most soulful version of the old standard ”Sixteen Tons” you’re likely to hear, ever, anywhere, by Eugene Church. There’s the twisted doo-wop of The Drivers on “Dry Bones Twist,” and the rough-around-the- edges R&B, with some serious stinging guitar, on Jackie Brenston’s “Much Later” (performed with Ike Turner’s King Of Rhythm). And the best song in this entire collection is a gutbucket powerhouse by The King Pins entitled, “I Won’t Have It.” As with all of the VampiSoul releases of this nature, there’s a substantial booklet with extensive band and track notes, and the cover design is decidedly more artful than the packaging done by a lot of comparable labels. These compilations enjoy a much more enthusiastic audience in Europe and Japan, so it’s no wonder I rarely see this kind of record reviewed in any mainstream music/entertainment publications in the U.S., or even in large-circulation newspapers. That’s a damn shame.