Digging out from the stuffed rubble of holiday consumption, January’s theme is material things. Tangible realities, textured substances and colorful artifacts, the new year shows no shortage of objects, trinkets, baubles and bling and the music industry responds with a cornucopia of weighty releases whose titles are inescapably physical compounds.
From Roseanne Cash’s shiny, solid, "Black Cadillac," to Black Wire’s tightly wound, trigger-happy, self-titled yip-rock romp and Okkervil River’s poetic postscript to misguided misfits in the wildly wooly, "Black Sheep Boy Appendix," sleek darkness engulfs music’s landscape. Looming large as the definitive shadow rock disc is legendary experimentalist John Cale’s brutally sophisticated, "blackActetate." From John’s booming voice to his whip lashed grooves, "blackAcetate," growls and grinds with deliciously diabolical detachment, thundering with rock solid authority and Cheshire Cat delight.
While the Blues gets Hip-O’s two CD Gold treatment, San Diego’s Jade Shader launches a blustery EP of moody rock and Violet’s countryish, "Last Cathedral," paints folk-pop pearls and bluesy ballads, as Clearlake’s, "Amber," marries contemplative hues to rousing substance and elusive emotions to captured memories. Somber without being sour, Clearlake’s earnest words swirl in a sea of stinging, serrated solos, syncopated harmonies and choppy, catchy choruses. Jade Shader parades while Violet trots and sways and Clearlake churns with amber grays.
Whimsical wardrobes include Portland’s fashionably cozy and literary turbulent Green Pajamas, sprightly dressed for their ominous, "21st Century Séance," as well as Jenny Lewis, whose honesty conjures the embraceable, "Rabbit Fur Coat." Both wonderful story-songwriters who flex pop’s perimeters, Jenny’s role as Rilo Kiley’s ultra-chic singer doesn’t prepare the way for the stripped-down, folk-soul of, "Coat." Comforting yet cunning, it’s the sturdy Appalachian cousin to the Green PJ’s elliptical psychedelia. Dissolving wit into wisdom, Jenny’s rural moods tackle sharp, social conundrums.
First the T. Rex classic, "Zinc Alloy and the Hidden Riders of Tomorrow," gets remastered with tons of bonus material, then Can polishes up another round of iconic reissues just as Collabs 3000 gives us the streamlined, glistening, "Metalism." What a difference thirty years makes as Can’s jazz-inflected krautrock and T. Rex’s space-age funk boogies beside Collabs’ DJs Speedy J and Chris Liebing. "Metalism," rewires Marc Bolan’s sexy soul and Can’s avant mechanics with throbbing virtual fantasies of digital perfection.
Talking Heads’ 1978, "More Songs About Buildings and Food," reappears in jaw-dropping DualDisc splendor this month and last year’s close saw Minnesota’s Six Mile Grove release savory alt-roots with their winning, "Bumper Crop," but its Winterpills’ self-titled debut that provides the season's best nutritional value. Offering vitalizing content and spiritual sustenance, Winterpills’ calming ambiance directly opposes the Heads' jittery angst, toning down Six Mile Grove’s upbeat rockabilly while artfully plying a country-pop tea laced with soft twang and rippling picking.
Grabbing the spotlight in February’s landslide of new releases are highly anticipated discs from Cat Power, Belle & Sebastian, Beth Orton and Ray Davies, plus a gigantic reissue campaign for folk-rock activist Billy Bragg. Look for new tunes from the unvarnished two gallants, the thrilling Subway and the epic Film School.
Many years ago, when I was a teenager living out East, there was an explosion of incredible singer-songwriter albums. One in particular fascinated me with fresh, sensitive lyrics and organic arrangements oozing optimistic visions. Jimmie Spheeris’, "Isle of View," stirred poetic jazz into orchestrated folk with genuine empathy. Converting my favorite records into CDs I discovered too late that while Jimmie’s recordings had been made into CDs, they were now out of print. I spent years looking at used copies on eBay that went for an extravagant $50 to $100. Then my wife got an Ipod for her birthday in November and I discovered that, "Isle," was available for $10 at iTunes—Or, even better, could be gotten for nothing at emusic.com if you were willing to trade it for some of your free trial downloads. Suddenly, what once seemed unattainable was easily within reach. Listening to it for the first time in decades, I thought, “They don’t make songs like these anymore...” I was soon proven wrong twice within one week. Possessing an intensity of feeling fused to a sophisticated mix of musical styles, both Pinetop Seven’s cinematic, "the night’s bloom," (www.pinetopseven.com) and multi-instrumentalist Tracy Jane Comer’s sterling, "Quietly There," (www.tracyjanecomer.com) display Spheeris’ compassionate grandeur. Pinetop’s strings, marimbas and guitars unfold fascinating vignettes with jazz, folk-rock and chamber pop grace, while Tracy yields a strong voice reminiscent of Joan Baez to create heartfelt jazz-folk journeys that soar soulfully. Whether as discs, records, tapes or MP3s, check them out.