February: In Review

Justin Spicer / February 29, 2012

Every month, the world is inundated with innumerable music choices across all genres and styles. SSG Music can’t begin to cover the disparate strands of noise that graces this vast planet, let alone our desks. “In Review” hopes to remedy this by showcasing a few gems and clunkers that we’ve missed as a given month has passed us by. Consider it our humble offering to you.

This month we catch up on new offerings from Dr. Dog, Mark Lanegan, Larkin Grimm, and Dustin Wong, explore the long-awaited collaboration between Jim Jarmusch and Jozef Van Wissem, and review the new DVD documentary about Frank Zappa‘s labels, From Straight to Bizarre.

Blues Funeral
Score: 8.1/10
Mark Lanegan Band

Of course Blues Funeral would begin with “The Gravedigger’s Song.” It’s the world of Mark Lanegan

The former Screaming Trees vocalist and oft collaborator of Isobel Campbell, Greg Dulli, and Josh Homme (both gentlemen appearing on Blues Funeral) returns with another batch of hard-livin’ liquor and smoke, but this time it’s different. “The Gravedigger’s Song” is a lighter; not so much Atlas’ boulder but a steady stream of quarry gravel raining upon Lanegan’s terrain. The strange switch in tempo snakes its way through much of Blues Funeral. “Gray Goes Black” is upbeat like Joy Division or The Cure are upbeat, just enough sour thought to keep the sun away. “Riot in my House” and “Quiver Syndrome” are typical Lanegan throwbacks, this time dressed up in some classic rawk riffage and 90s chart appeal–fifteen years late of making lasting impact but welcome nonetheless.

Yet Blues Funeral is also the binder soaked sorrow Lanegan’s solo work has long harbored. “Bleeding Muddy Water” and “Phantasmagoria Blues,” the bankrupt bottom of the shot glass that showcases Lanegan’s soft gruffness without irony. We’ve come to seek this warm embrace of sour mash and musky scent, Lanegan never disappointing.

It ain’t all bells and whistles but the full band exploits provide a nice sheen to Lanegan’s work. It’s been nearly 8 years since Lanegan produced a legitimate solo effort and Blues Funeral has been worth the wait. The blend of blues, rock, and shoegaze (yeah, shoegaze!) fits Lanegan’s prose; much needed words of sorrow and redemption in our time of social turmoil.

Be The Void
Score: 6/10
Dr. Dog

Philly outfit Dr. Dog has plowed through album after album, stage after stage with a relentless drive to recapture the youthful pop rumpus. Proving their allegiance to the days of Beatles, Stones, and Beach Boys, the gruff edge of Dr. Dog has brought a lot to recording and road—perhaps one of the most reliable and unappreciated live acts consistently touring America.

It must get tiring. Be the Void is all the evidence needed. The band’s fifth album in seven years suffers from creative fatigue. Dr. Dog’s becoming an old friend without new tricks. The influences the band counts, despite matching the pace and fervor that Dr. Dog willingly mimics, also took time to discover new outlets and sounds. Be the Void is just fodder for another tour; reasons to print new t-shirts, albums, and tour itineraries. There are hopeful glimmers of a shift (the heavy hand of “How Long Must I Wait”; the garage sludge of “Vampire”) but it’s lost in a set of also-rans dressed up as new material.

Dr. Dog can do better. But first they need to get themselves off the road. Asking a band to shirk their livelihood is risky venture but if they don’t, the well is going to be dry far too quickly for a band with so much left to offer.

Concerning the Entrance to Eternity
Score: 9.3/10
Jozef Van Wissem & Jim Jarmusch

Removing celebrity from the equation, the pairing of filmmaker and part-time musician Jim Jarmusch with full-time lutenist Jozef Van Wissem is eerily divine. There’s little coincidence between the philosophical ominous album title and the existential noise emanating from Jarmusch’s gnarled drone and Van Wissem’s gentle notes. Both were made to be matches in the afterlife; to spread destruction and repair for an eternity.

The robust result, Concerning the Entrance to Eternity, is a remarkable work bridging untouchable sound with malleable art. The interplay demonstrated between Jarmusch and Van Wissem is kinetic, each feeding off the others’ opposite rhythms. When Jarmusch grows restless and feral, as demonstrated on ”The Sun of the Natural World is Fire” or to a lesser degree on opener “Apokatastasis,” the results are otherworldly. Jarmusch the conjurer, rising distorted demons to violently play with Van Wissem’s angelic phrases.

Yet much of the album finds the twosome living in harmony, Van Wissem’s lute holding Jarmusch’s guitar by the hand as they merrily greet the unknown. Concerning the Entrance to Eternity is a well enveloped story, not unlike the screen works of Jarmusch. Even with our own abstractions, the completed piece is a masterstroke; our projections turning the duo’s powerful music into equally potent magic.

From Straight to Bizarre
Starring: Frank Zappa, Alice Cooper, Captain Beefheart, Tim Buckley, The GTOs
Score: 7.5/10
Sexy Intellectual

Documenting the formation of Frank Zappa and Herb Cohen’s own Bizarre/Straight record labels, From Straight to Bizarre is a Zappa fan’s wet dream. Nearly three hours in length, the wealth of interviews with those who were apart of the label, its cadre of artists, and historians all too familiar with Zappa’s mythology chime in during this celluloid behemoth.

And therein is the problem.

From Straight to Bizarre is a treasure trove. Diving head first like Scrooge McDuck into a bottomless money bin full of gold coins is advised but be warned, coming up to the surface will be a battle. Despite the information into Zappa’s disparate interests and his goal of controlling the freak scene in which his Mothers of Invention were spawned, this document is weighed down by too many voices. There is no need for three Zappa biographers to chime in, not to mention when they all seem to paraphrase one another. The personal stories from a few of the label’s artists are second-rate and add little color to an already brimming palette.

Yet this represents a heavy piece of rock and roll history. Repetitive, yes—boring, no. For the old fogeys out there looking for a little love, From Straight to Bizarre will deliver it from all sides; those fogeys trying to coach up their friends and offspring about the far reaches of classic rock and roll will have an easy time selling their loved ones on watching the film. By the end, it’s no wonder Frank Zappa is a much revered personality. He was a man with faults—and they were showcased on his label—but in the end he had an ear for talent and an eye for showmanship, something From Straight to Bizarre doesn’t disregard. It’s a fan film but with good reason. Now if only someone would have taken two of the biographers out back and locked them in the shed.

Soul Retrieval
Score: 7.3/10
Bad Bitch
Larkin Grimm

Out from under the thumb of Michael Gira’s Young God label, Larkin Grimm returns with the harrowing Soul Retrieval. It is likely fans of Joanna Newsom and classic folkies such as Joan Baez will naturally gravitate toward Grimm’s gentle sways but there’s more than just classic touchstones to appreciate.

Soul Retrieval is a happier selection of tunes than Parplar, springing from a different headspace (leaving Gira’s watchful eye, beginning a family) but equally affecting. The slight attitude adjustment is felt most in the uplifting melodies. “Without a Body or a Numb and Useless Mind” is a catchy jab, equally equipped to poke fun at the mindless and to spread joy with toe tapping country-isms overflowing from its peach basket. “The Road is Paved with Leaves” is a dusty blues torch song, with Grimm holding back on the heavy vocals in favor of allowing the mood to be the guiding force.

Grimm’s songwriting does suffer a bit of A.D.D., mirroring her youthful wandering (from communes, to southern mountain towns, Yale, and now Manhattan). Variety is the spice of life but in regards to album creation, a string to tie disparate ideas and sounds together allows for full album enjoyment. Soul Retrieval’s jumpy genres will lead to skipping whole sections to match mood, losing the momentum of listening to an entire album. The digital age may be blamed for killing off the concept of the album, but artists must bear some blame–Soul Retrieval a perpetrator in the line-up.

But Grimm’s transgressions are easily overlooked by the wealth of influences she distills. With a bit more guidance from famed producer Tony Visconti, Soul Retrieval would be a hidden gem. As it stands, it’s just a bushel of songs from the talented Grimm with little direction.

Dreams Say, View, Create, Shadow Leads
Score: 8.8/10
Thrill Jockey
Dustin Wong (MySpace)

Not as aesthetically ambitious as 2010’s Infinite Love, Dustin Wong’s return to complicated guitar repetitions via Dreams Say, View, Create, Shadow Leads is far grander in scope. Wong has long possessed a gravitational quality to his playing, effortlessly blending experimental attitude with power pop prowess.

Dreams, at its heart, is pop album. The bouncy guitar phrases playfully stacked upon each other produce instantly catchy rhythms that will stay trapped in the aural canals long after the album’s finished. “Feet Prints on Flower Dreads” rolls around the skull like the quizzical triangle trapped in a Magic Eight Ball’s blue liquid. It’s viscous and will stain, leaving a permanent Rorschach impression on the frontal lobe.

The magical goo of Dreams will only saturate itself further into your genetic make-up with further listens, changing your constitution for the better. If you don’t tap your feet and find yourself full of more energy granted after snorting an even more magical eight ball after repeated listens of “Triangle Train Stop,” than Thomas the Tank Engine has every right to mow you down as Conductors Starr and Carlin pummel you with gut kicks loaded with rainbows and cotton candy.

But Dreams won’t need to beat you over the head with sugar-high threats. The album indulges the sweet tooth of all, resetting us all for our daily dance with what lies outside of our homes. We need more Dustin Wongs; perhaps as spies infiltrating the darkest depths of totalitarianism and setting the people free with musical motivation. It may be an extravagant dream but one Dreams fosters.

What will you dream of?

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