Utne Reader Music Reviews: July-August 2008

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Lounge Wizard
Barry Adamson
Back to the Cat (Central Control)
After hearing just a few bars of Barry Adamson’s textured and psychological music, it comes as no surprise to learn that the musician was tapped to provide aural background for David Lynch’s 1997 thriller, Lost Highway. Like Lynch, Adamson adopts a style only to subvert it. Adamson’s preferred mode is the shiny, orchestrated lounge sound of ’60s cinema. And you don’t need to look too hard to find the hell.

Born and raised in Manchester’s notoriously race-riven Moss Side, Adamson enlisted in the punk scene, collaborating with various members of the Buzzcocks and eventually playing bass in the Bad Seeds behind the gloomy and dramatic front man Nick Cave. It’s easy to trace these antecedents in his solo work–in particular, the quintessential punk-rock marriage of pessimism and wit. But compared to many of his contemporaries, Adamson has evolved in interesting and sophisticated directions. Since his first solo release, 1989’s Moss Side Story, Adamson has injected his wry humor and dark soul into a unique blend of comic-book drama, lounge-jazz styling, serious musical experimentation, and an obvious appreciation for movies.

In an interview last year with Your Flesh magazine, Adamson claimed to have buried some of his demons, and it’s true that Back to the Cat has lost the head-in-the-oven misery of his early work. Instead, the album samples blues, jazz, and Adamson’s trademark lounge, and while it’s not exactly lightweight fare, there’s a lot more glimmering sunlight, and even a couple of guffaws, behind the clouds. –Joseph Hart

Explorers Club
Freedom Wind (Dead Oceans)
I’m not the first to notice that the Beach Boys were incredibly good. Paul McCartney said as much. But as often as classic bands like the Beatles are imitated, few post-punk bands attempt to replicate the Beach Boys’ sound. With Freedom Wind–its oh-so-perfect four-part barbershop harmonies, snappy snare, tight surf hooks, and, yes, ever-so-urgent tambourine–Pet Sounds just got 35 minutes longer. Yet the six members of the Explorers Club are more limber than perfectionist Brian Wilson would ever let his Boys be. This album is looser and more fun, placing it happily in the present. –Jason Ericson

Henry Butler
Pianola Live (Basin Street)
Henry Butler is not a classically pretty performer. The blind New Orleans pianist thunders the ivories with the capacious resonance of McCoy Tyner and the spry, syncopated jangle of Professor Longhair, and sings with a throaty passion that’s even more raw, rough, and ready than his piano work. Pianola Live is a collection of 11 solo concert performances culled from Butler’s personal tapings over the past quarter century–songs steeped in the blues-soul-jazz-Cajun gumbo of the Crescent City. Butler was among the thousands who lost their homes in Hurricane Katrina, so some songs, like “Old Man River” and a blistering rendition of “(Sittin’ On) the Dock of the Bay,” are inevitably political in context. But the abiding impression from this boogie-woogie jazz inferno is his indomitable joy in performance. As he points out in the liner notes: “It’s only tourist music if you play it like tourist music.” –Britt Robson

Wolves and Wishes (Anticon)
Martin Dosh is a solo artist who makes mostly instrumental music for the digital age, but that implies a level of seclusion and impersonality that his compositions just don’t have. Wolves and Wishes is immediately engaging for its pretty melodies and playful rhythms, and it’s more old school than you might suspect: There are no drum tracks, and real violins, guitars, saxophones, and human voices emerge from the mix. Compositionally, Dosh takes his cues from greats of the non-pop contemporary canon: There’s a little Steve Reich in the repetition, a little Arthur Russell in the unhinged emotionalism, a little Brian Eno in the gorgeous washes of ambient sound, a little Sun Ra in the spacey experimentalism. And at the core of it all is a pulsing, passionate heart. –Keith Goetzman

Rupa and the April Fishes
Extraordinary Rendition (Cumbancha)
Clearly the work of a terrorist organization, Extraordinary Rendition promotes dangerous anti-American notions such as multiculturalism, internationalism, and exuberant dancing. The ringleader of the Rupa and the April Fishes jihadist group appears to be a dark-haired woman with intense eyes and a command of numerous languages and musical traditions–especially French and gypsy–all the better to infiltrate the cosmopolitan capitals of the West with her band of ethnically indeterminate musicians. Most of her songs are about love, which may be a veiled reference to hate. Research has revealed that Rupa lives a double life as a physician and that while the group operates in the San Francisco area (naturally), it has set its sights on world domination. If you see them, please get close to the stage and obtain detailed physical descriptions. –K.G.

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