September: In Review

Justin Spicer / September 30, 2011

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 Wilco, Tori Amos, Miminokoto, A Winged Victory for the Sullen, and Barn Owl as well as the DVD reissue of 1991: The Year Punk Broke.

A Winged Victory for the Sullen
Score: 9.1/10
A Winged Victory for the Sullen

Stars of the Lid veteran Adam Wiltzie joins with composer Dustin O’Halloran to create seven haunting tracks, each more hauntingly beautiful than the previous. Matching the delicacy and intricacy of a well composed movie soundtrack, the self-titled debut from Wiltzie and O’Halloran speaks to those moved by the unpredictability of a plastic bag being swept up in a ground swell.

Wiltzie’s soft touch has driven Stars of the Lid’s minimalistic approach for nearly 20 years. It’s Dustin O’Halloran’s stringed interludes that breathe new life into the elegant ambience of A Winged Victory for the Sullen. The duo has labeled themselves “harmonic Robitussin” and one listen nails down the sweet aesthetic. Recalling the rise and fall theatrics of Rameses III (the UK trio, not the sexually charged emperor), the band’s self-titled is a work of divine meditation.

Despite continuing delays with the vinyl pressing, A Winged Victory for the Sullen is crafted with the turntable in mind. The hiss and crackle of a spinning disc meeting metallic needle will only add new dimensions to an album overflowing with them. Each listen is a new discovery and to ignore O’Halloran and Wiltzie’s latest venture is to turn your back on all the beauty the physical world has to offer.

The Whole Love
Score: 4.5/10
Dbpm Records

Wilco has always presented itself as fan-friendly and though the band’s presence lately has found it more comfortable as a brand than as a liaison between audience and entertainers (using their name to christen books, bikes, beer, and of course their last album). But I’m here to tell you Jeff Tweedy doesn’t give a damn about you if you don’t relish him in the now (I have the unprovoked “F— You!” and the cold shoulder asking for explanation e-mails to back it up).

Wilco enters their eighth album (and the first on their newly established label) The Whole Love, with the same attitude Tweedy has presented to non-Rolling Stone/Spin/Paste media in recent months. If you’re not on board with what Wilco’s producing, than you’re not a “fan” and your opinion is meaningless.

Sad to say, so is the music Wilco has produced in the post-A Ghost is Born world. Lead single “I Might” echoes Tweedy’s new fiery attitude, with John Stirratt’s bass fuzzed with ferocity and the band’s rhythm section equally perturbed. However, the good times and snarling attitude doesn’t last. The broken-down reboot “Art of Almost” dares to hearken to the ghost of Summerteeth but lands in the junkpile of the tossed-off jams Wilco included in its 2004 book. But it’s the back half of The Whole Love that finds the band recycling its worst material: that of Sky Blue Sky and Wilco the Album. It’s now become evident that Tweedy isn’t in a rut, this is just who he has become. All the sinus surgeries, kicked drug habits, and axed band members (maybe Jay Bennett DID have the answers?) have turned Fun Tweedy into mush.

There’s a scene from That Thing You Do when Faye, having finally had it with Jimmy’s attitude, calls him out for saving his sincerity and love for his songs. The Whole Love proves the same for Tweedy, furthering the divide between his old fans and his new following. It’s beginning to seem that maybe Wilco was more than just Tweedy’s prose, and that even the talents of Glenn Kotche and Nels Cline can’t save the band for its crash with mediocrity. No amount of f-you’s is going to clean up this mess we’re in.

Score: 7.3/10

Formed from offshoots of Japanese legends Acid Mothers Temple, Miminokoto return stateside with new album, Hitoyogiri. Much like the music of the Sub-Sahara region, Japan has quietly but mind-blowingly re-imagined classic American and British psychedelia. Miminokoto takes it a step further blending far-out sounds with claustrophobic garage rock embellishments, taken from old and new influences alike.

The album kicks off with name sake, “Hitoyogiri,” a stoner jam that erupts into flames of violent guitar strums. But the trio shows off their softer (but no less edgy) side with follow-up “Midsummer’s End,” a simple flower power pop turn. It’s a vibe that is largely left unchanged; Hitoyogiri is allowed to blossom under the energy of Haight-Ashbury with the workman Zen of Japanese reinvention. “Milky Light” is the only glimpse of a band caught up in Grateful extravagance but please excuse this one indulgence, for even its distorted course is far more Crazy Horse than Jerry in execution.

Night of Hunters
Score: 7.9/10
Deutsche Grammophon
Tori Amos

For all the directions in which a Tori Amos album (and subsequent review) can travel, the obvious one to note with Night of Hunters is its release on Universal’s classical music label, Deutsche Grammophon (AKA PolyGram). Need more of a hint?

Night of Hunters begins dramatically, with the powerful “Shattering Sea,” that overlaps tone and melody with The Police classic, “King of Pain.” Amos’ pounding piano heightens the anxious string arrangements but enjoyment is found in how far Amos is willing to stretch out her music. “SnowBlind” begins with Amos cohort Natashya Hawley touching upon the sweet Muppet voice of Joanna Newsom. It may be the first time Amos & Hawley mimic the angelic harpist but it’s not the last. Night of Hunters unfurls like Ys’ Victorian ancestor; a strange mélange of Tchaikovsky and chamber pop.

It’s no coincidence. This is Amos’ masterstroke in her infinite search to combine her artistic identity with her musical rhetoric. The concept of lovers torn apart—the female lead finding her own inner strength in the aftermath—is the sort of feminist triumph that has snaked its tentacles through Amos’ canon. Within Night of Hunters, the ups and downs come to successful fruition. Be damned pop crossover, Amos has a date on the stage of the Metropolitan; her red hair as fiery as ever, her posture assured with the feeling of complete success. Tori Amos has done the unthinkable, elegantly combining her incongruent influences into confident art. Amos has flirted with this persona before but Night of Hunters finds it fully formed.

1991: The Year Punk Broke
Director: David Markey
Starring: Sonic Youth, Nirvana, Dinosaur Jr., Babes in Toyland, Gumball
Score: 9.5/10
1991: The Year Punk Broke

It don’t get no rowdier than a touring film capturing a ten years-old Sonic Youth interacting with friends and not-yet-ready-for-primetime players Nirvana. David Markey’s blend of backstage banter, onstage electricity, and off-stage banter is the stuff of legends. Capturing Sonic Youth in early critical stride and Nirvana on the precipice of superstardom (the film was shot during a European tour—largely the festival circuit—in the summer preceding the release of Nevermind), 1991: The Year Punk Broke is chalked with the sort of ironic tension that currently rules the musical roost; ignited by the fires of the bands burnt on celluloid by Markey’s watchful (but rarely intrusive) lens and now it makes its way onto DVD for the first time.

Highlights beyond obvious performances from Sonic Youth and Nirvana stem from interactions between the bands and their surroundings. Dave Grohl narrates a strange investigation of a backstage buffet; people speak of Thurston Moore’s passion of record store hunting; Kim Gordon and J. Mascis play it straight during a skit mocking Madonna’s Truth or Dare. And as if we didn’t need the visual proof, we get an early glimpse into the distractive nature of Courtney Love as she crashes the fun times of Kurt and crew.

More than anything, The Year Punk Broke reminds us of how awesome the late 80s and early 90s were before major labels began churning out alterna-drones (some worthy of their success, most happily have faded into the flannelled ether) on the heels of Nirvana’s success. With all the 20 year bull that is approaching surrounding Nirvana, it’s great to get an unfettered look at the band before snowballing success.

It’s also refreshing to (re)discover bands like Gumball and Babes in Toyland–their appearances brief but equally memorable.

Lost in the Glare
Score: 8.5/10
Thrill Jockey
Barn Owl

Hot damn are Evan Caminiti and Jon Porras ever going to slow their roll? The doom duo of Barn Owl has slowly descending from their Bay Area pedestal like a morning fog, slowly covering the globe in a haze of deliberate distortion until their path intersected with Chicago-based Thrill Jockey. Lost in the Glare, as with every Barn Owl album preceding it, resets the bar for guitar voyeurism.

The twosome bounded over a shared love of metal and meditative music—ideologies existing at opposite ends of the spectrum. But like Om, Sunn O))), and Earth before them, Barn Owl were able to bridge the ebon abyss and do it on their own terms, with their own know-how. Lost in the Glare is the final peg in the haggard rope bridge, with nary a sag or rickety step to be found.

To wax poetic on the mudslide that is Lost in the Glare would be to do it injustice. Just freeze the powerful metal riffs of yore and watch as they slow down; morphing from hare to tortoise. The fast and furious movement slowed into a methodical grind of beauty. The composure and patience of Porras and Caminiti deserves just as much praise as the music; to wait for the right note, the right moment—it’s a practice in Monastic devotion. Let the ecclesiastic doom wash over you.

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