Black and Blue America
Train Wreck Records
You don't know Chip Taylor without you've heard a song by the name of "Wild Thing"; but that ain't no matter. His new album solidly reaffirms his strength as a songwriter, fusing time and sensibilities from some 35 years of cultural evolution.
Taylor takes an avant-pop approach to the alternative-outlaw-folk-country genre, if a six-way hyphenation project can be called a genre. Drawing on sound bites of everyone from Gandhi and Freud to the messages on his answering machine, Taylor weaves this contempericana throughout the album to add context and resonance to the individual tracks. Whether riffing on Elian Gonzales and Tiger Woods or Rosa Parks and Vietnam, Taylor makes sure to color the world of the recording with the reality that surrounds it.
The 16 songs span everything from the self-deprecating to the heartbroken, from unadulterated rollicking to alternative spiritual, documenting a true America -- a red, white, Black and Blue America. The title track is a stirring mix of folk guitar and harmonica with historical samplings hearkening back to a time when the passion fit the song, and it aptly sets the tone for the rest of the journey.
His two duets with Lucinda Williams are destined for radio airplay, but they're ironically out of step with most of the album. While Taylor's voice takes on a wide range of rough-hewn twang and informality on numbers like "Dance with Jesus" and "It Don't Get Better Than This," his smoothed-over, trying-too-hard singing with Williams's jagged, expressive vocals on "Could I Live with This" and "The Ship" make for an oddly balanced but captivating pairing.
"Them for an American Hero" and "Blind of the Midnight Hour" are two gentler highlights. The former is among the most touching lyrics, and the latter blends lyrical images of Spanish angels falling to their knees while flamenco guitar and soft horns trumpet the song's soft melodies.
Taylor's tender when he wants to be, and he loves to mix his weathered sensitivity with ironic humor on songs like "I Need Some Horses Around." The song is a wonderfully Western defense-against-love song, trading in the vulnerability of the heart for the wide open landscape of the range. John Prine's backup vocals bring out the spare beauty in a line like "Horses don't think for you/They just eat and drink for you/They nuzzle their noses and they don't make much sound/And I need some horses around."
Prine makes a handful of appearances on the album, even appearing in the lyrics. "Like a John Prine song, it kind of runs away/When it come back to your heart, well it comes to stay," Taylor sings in a song about being left by the Lord as if He's a lover leaving on the last train for Texas. The subtle humor plays like a slow-handed guitar lick, passing up the pyrotechnics for the more precise punch so long associated with Prine. When they duet together on "It's the Way of It," a lilting, whistling ditty with audible smiles skirting the verge of laughter, you could easily believe you'd skipped over to a Prine album.
At the outer end of the energy spectrum, the rollicking irreverence of "Dance with Jesus" and the cool jukebox renegade grooves of "Stroke City Girls" are hard to resist, making you pull your boots on and head out to honky-tonk with a two-step partner. Taylor slips into the up-beat abandon of "Fort Worth Thursday Night," with its Robert Earl Keen allusions and its tequilas and Shiner Bock spirit sounding every bit like Keen's band in full tilt.
"Temptation" brings the album full circle, summoning the outlaw spirit of the Highwaymen in its timeless lyrics. It's a fitting coda by means of a Western-tinged spiritual, elevated by P.P. Arnold's high-spirited and soulful vocals lifting the album above its well-worn groove without discarding the consistent tone and the album's black-and-blue hue.
Ancient Melodies of the Future
Built to Spill
Warner Bros. Records
Whatever uncharted direction modern music may take, we still need guitar heroes like we need milk on cereal. For those of us who lean toward Neil Young's "one note after the other" school of primitive guitar expressionism rather than, say, the Jimmy Page school of shred, Built to Spill's Doug Martsch is a godsend: a frontman with an uncanny melodic sense, a wistful space-boy voice, and a big, fuzzed-out ax sound colored with Idaho sunsets and stars.
On BTS' seventh album, Ancient Melodies of the Future, Martsch and cohorts summon up majesty like a thunderstorm -- songs like "You Are" and "The Weather" are gems of the first order. "You Are" captures BTS's soaring, lonely grandeur, a luminous slide guitar playing off the languid Crazy Horse pace of the rhythm section, led by former Spinanes drummer Scott Plouf.
Despite some duds, most other songs succeed also: "Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss" is pop the way it should be -- hooky, upbeat and stylistically distinct. And "In Your Mind" grooves on off-kilter phrasing and a raga drone.
Martsch's knack for ambitious arrangements -- some songs include baroque Beatlesque strings -- is both a blessing and, occasionally, a curse. "Alarmed" has a simple, beautiful melody reminiscent of Neil Young's "Helpless," but Doug can't help adding a cello slide that sounds overly arch alongside his general guilelessness. Oh well; it'll sound good live.
Martsch, along with Elliot Smith and Yo La Tengo, is one of the most consistent indie songwriters around. Where others have segued into irrelevancy, this album is dependably strong (check out the even more marvelous 2000 album Keep It Like a Secret). BTS tempers their noise with sweetness, fidelity and a spaciousness as wide as the night sky. Rock may be dying elsewhere; apparently, that news never reached Idaho.
-- Paul Wilson
Dublab Presents: Freeways
dublab.com/Emperor Norton Records
O hail the art form the people call compilation, which bringeth forth those who shine most brightly from the campestral tribes. O hail the mighty dublab.com collective, whose long arm hath stretched over greater Los Angeles! For it is the loins of this lab from which Freeways hath sprung forth. O joyous vinyl exclamation! O ear-opening synth collection!
Freeways is a refreshing 13-track rundown of L.A.'s finest young, unknown, unsigned masters and mistresses of beat. The collection begins with "The Sky Below," a fetching series of thin, settling beats pinpointed with electronic video game samples and woven throughout with contemplative acoustic guitar. A simple but fulfilling track by Languis & Fer Chloca, it is the embodiment of West Coast.
The disc loses momentum in some places -- John Tejada needs to learn the Zen of simplicity and Yesterday's New Quintet's "Soul Searchin' " is a tangled fusion mess. Yet, however divided be the dark and light, dublab has provided a satisfying pu-pu platter of new sounds. Such as dntel, whose haunting of "If I Don't Return" is a piece of beauty. Damon Aaron's refined urban mix and gospel-powered voice is the disc's emotional stronghold, and Ammoncontact's "Chord (parts 1-2)" radiates with intelligent talent.
But there is Mia Doi Todd. Like a shining goddess wielding an elegant sword she dismisses all other sounds, leaving only her kitsune voice and hypnotic treble bass beating like an anxious heart. Todd's "Digital, Version 2.1" is the apex of Freeways. Everything else is forgotten while her wide-eyed voice, pure and vital, declares belletristic words over her Asian mix. A regal female Todd is, commanding respect and awe with her quiet musical beauty and young wisdom. She will one day find herself striding over the terra with the world quietly resting on her fingertips, and dublab has opened her door.
-- Kristen Sherwood