Posts Tagged ‘Blues’

Stephen Malkmus – Xian Man

Not that this track needs my input (if you escaped it yesterday, you probably weren’t paying attention), but this wasn’t what I’d been expecting from a new Malkmus LP and it’s certainly a pleasant surprise. The last record seemed like exactly what someone of Stephen’s stature has (and should have) the freedom to make. It was a left turn that didn’t always lead down clear streets but the journey was scenic nonetheless. The first cut from the upcoming Traditional Techniques seems like another left, albeit this time right into my wheelhouse. Along with Matt Sweeney in tow and Chris Funk arranging, Malkmus burns through a set of dessert blues that feel like Matt and Steve have been spending some time picking through the Subliminal Frequencies catalog and attending a Tinariwen set or two. There’s a feeling of blues, but its smoke-smeared and winding down the paths that usually have Ben Chasny and Sir Richard Bishop lurking in the shadows at the end. Feels like a good mood on Malkmus, as there’s no need to perfect the untucked aleternatives he’s already helped foster. This too feels like a whim. They might not all stick, but take the chances, bring along a few ringers on guitar and I’ll be there waiting, that’s for sure.




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Joseph Allred

The last outing from Joseph Allred, 2019’s O Meadowlark solidified Allred’s reputation as a consummate picker, one whose style moved with an effortless grace from slippery Fahey runs through the more buttoned up blisters of Kotke and the spiritual slants of Basho. Like the latter player in that triumvirate, Allred takes a swipe at vocal blues on his latest, Traveler. While the majority of the record still showcases his chameleonic stringwork, on the album opener and title track, he lends his voice to an emotionally fraught tale that proves out of the gate that he’s not just a master of the strings. Over the next few songs Allred works his way through brambles and rabbles of notes that, while certainly virtuosic, also serve to salve and calm. It’s a pastoral, primal record that’s knotted with tangled roots and torn soil. Allred wears the mantle of natural conduit well, lending Traveler a soiled grace that’s hard to shake.

When his blues pop through once more, they don’t break the spell, instead giving the earthen rambles an anchor of humanity that tills the topsoil of the instrumental odes. “The Crown” feels sung by moonlight – a barn song that rings through the rafters with a pang of sadness. Allred swaps between banjo and guitar with such admirable ease that the change in instruments doesn’t jar in the least, letting the two timbres weave together into a tapestry of sound, looping lustrous thread through the earth tones of his sonic fabric. He caps off the vocal offerings with “O Columbia” a song that snags a few loose Fahey ends (specifically “In Christ There Is No East or West,”) and ties them to a sighing track that slips beneath the horizon as the record lopes into the last lap. The record finally fads away with a touching tribute to Glen Jones that tips a hat to one of Allred’s more modern influences. This may very well be his finest, and hopefully opens the door for more vocal offerings from the songwriter.



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Willie Lane – A Pine Tree Shilling’s Worth

Starting in 2009 guitarist Willie Lane issued a run of albums on his own Cord-Art label, ranging from fingerpicked folk to ragged blues. The albums, Known Quantity, Guitar Army of One and A Pine Tree Shilling’s Worth all seeped out quietly and went out of print quickly. Thankfully Feeding Tube have sought to correct the scarcity of the originals with a run of reissues over the last couple years and they’re now drawing that to a close with a new version of Pine Tree, which might be the best of the bunch. The LP is far more electric than the other two in the trilogy, leaning in heavily to the ragged blues and experimental feel of the series. The record isn’t tied to genre or feeling, but explores a shifting sense of sound that’s as rooted in the Takoma take on folk as it is in the dirt-caked Philly scene that would surface years later. Lane acts as a bridge between eras and does so without any whiff of overthinking. The pieces on A Pine Tree Shilling’s Worth flow with a loose ramble that weaves between the roots of the now snow-soaked Pioneer Valley.

Lane has been an integral part of the latest wave of psych-folk froth, not to mention the one before it, having collaborated with Elkhorn, Matt Valentine, Meg Baird, Samara Lubelski, Specrte Folk, and Espers over the years. Having this trilogy of releases back in print is a vital link between where Lane has been and where he’s headed. There’s word that another LP is on the way, so perhaps this last reissue will be preamble to the next node of his songwriting. Personally, I’m quite interested in what’s next, though 2019 itself is packed with Lane hallmarks. Besides this reissue, you can hear him on Elkhorn’s Sun Cycle/Elk Jam and Valentine’s Preserves album. If you’re just starting in on his works, I’d recommend beginning with this one and then diving backwards.



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Charles Rumback on Houndog – S/T

The new collaboration between Ryley Walker and Charles Rumback is a highlight for both artists, but while you might be more familiar with Walker’s extensive output, there’s plenty to dig into with his foil’s career as well. The Chicago percussionist has worked with Jazz trio Colorist alongside John Hughes and Charles Gorczynski and found contemporaries in Fred Lonberg-Holm and Nick Macri in Stirrup. He’s touched through experimental country with The Horses Ha and led his own records exploring jazz under his own name. Rumback’s been a lynchpin in the Chicago scene for over fifteen years and so I asked him to drop in a pick to the Gems series. Interestingly he’s also chosen a collaboration, the late ‘90s team-up of Mike Halby from Canned Heat and David Hidalgo from Los Lobos under the name Houndog. Check out how this came into Charles’ life and the impact it’s had on him.

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Bill Orcutt

After years of disassembling the notions of song through the divinations of his guitar, Bill Orcutt is putting them back together, albeit with his own slant on what folk and blues are meant to be. Orcutt’s always had a knack for taking songforms into less comfortable territory, letting his runs ruffle rather than soothe the soul, all while shaking the American Songbook by its ankles. He’s found a cache of secret notes between the pages of that songbook and he’s pulled a few of them into his own compositions for a ride that’s both familiar and transformative. The record roots itself in the same fingerpicked folk that might rear its head on a Richard Bishop or Fahey album and the same syncopated blues that informed players from the porches to the stage, but like Tetuzi Akiyama, Loren Connors, or 75 Dollar Bill alongside him, he’s taken the riff and ramble and given them teeth.

His runs aren’t pure, and we should all be thankful for that. When Orcutt runs the boogie down he’s bound to bend bones to the point of breaking if the listener is inspired to movement. Don’t nod along too hard lest you strain a ligament, y’know. His acoustic runs still bring forth the image of natural splendor, but there’s a taste of man-made disaster in there as well. In his vision trees are uprooted and twisted with power lines and smells of charred wood mingle with verdant moss. Orcutt goes to the well and brings back the elements of life, but not before letting a bit of blood loose in the water. We are nourished and slightly poisoned at the same time. As usual he’s proven a master of his forms, but just as usual he’s taken expectation and kicked it into the dirt. There are others that have tried, but few that can find that same singular light that Orcutt brings to an album.




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Gong Gong Gong

Beijing duo Gong Gong Gong root their songs in a minimalist blues that incorporates traditional Chinese structures, but come out feeling like desolate, havok-wreaked tunes for the coming collapse. There’s tension at every corner of Phantom Rhythm and the pair aim it at the listener in waves of dustbowl devastation. With only two players (guitar and bass) it seems like they couldn’t keep the propulsion kicking with the kind of intensity they court for a whole album, but with the guitars scratching away a galloped gait and the bass fuzzing at the seams, the songs are breathless and biting. They leave room for nuance, though. While they always seem to wind up at a stomping gallop by the time the tracks close, along the way they prove themselves limber players who can snake through any musical opening.

On the slightly pedal-paced “Moonshadows” there’s still an urgency, but the band also finds themselves slinking through the shadows, quiet on their feet but keeping their hearts thudding hard in their chest as they weave through the wilds of rhythm. The fuzz if forever hungry in the heart of Phantom Rhythm and bassist Joshua Frank often lets his instrument act as the radical element in their dynamic, vaulting off of guitarist Tom Ng’s steady strut a low-end howl through the caverns of the mind. Though they’re packed into a Bo Diddly swagger sack on the surface, the record updates the folk-blues model for a thornier, more furious world. This is sweat-lodge high-vision choogle, a groove that slices between past and future. The future ate the past and only the dry scrape of Gong Gong Gong hangs ominously in the distance.



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Gong Gong Gong – “Ride A Horse”

An absolute pounder from Chinese rhythm merchants Gong Gong Gong up today. The band’s debut for Wharf Cat is on the way next week and “Ride Your Horse” is a prime argument as to why it should be on your radar. The band’s stripped-down sound – just guitar and bass – is as primal as ever here, pulsing with menace and urgency. The song is split into sections take startling turns, based on Chinese classical structures, but feeling far from buttoned up or traditional. The pair are always riding the sharpened edge of groove, using it to slice through the dense morning air. Despite the breathless beat of the song, the accompanying video, co-directed by bassist Joshua Frank, is calm – featuring swordplay, but purely in an exercise setting alongside other forms of meditative sport. The contrast adds to the tension of the throbbing beat and the ozone charged air that wafts around the band. Check the clip above.



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The Coathangers’ Julia Kugel on Howlin’ Wolf – The Howlin’ Wolf Album

This year has been stuffed with great Hidden Gems and the latest continues the trend. After the release of one of their best album’s to date, The Coathangers’ Julia Kugel has passed along some wisdom from her own record shelves. If you’re unfamiliar with the band (which, frankly seems unlikely) their latest is a great place to start, boiling down their punk, post-punk, and garage impulses to a sound that’s serrated and sawing yet damnably hooky. The band is blessed with three strong songwriters, each bringing their own particular burn to the band and its great to get a look at what’s behind that burn, even just a bit. Julia chooses a conflicted blues classic for her entry. Check out her take on Howlin’ Wolf’s psychedelic period below.

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Masaki Batoh

On his first solo album since 2012’s largely experimental Brain Pulse, Japanese legend Masaki Batoh returns to the roots of psych-folk that wrought Ghost all those years ago. Winding through the same serene mists that haunted Lama Rabi Rabi and the band’s eponymous debut, Nowhere is a picture of Batoh leaning into his strengths while embracing both Japanese and, for the first time, English lyrics. While this is his first solo record proper in a while, its hardly the first we’ve heard from Batoh’s camp in the last couple of years. Following three albums working the psychedelic edge with his outfit The Silence, Nowhere is also a return to the meditative pacing reverent calm for the songwriter, relying on circular fingerpicks and the humid creep of echo to replace anything as outwardly explosive as he’s been fond of recently.

Having been drawn to the work of Masaki Batoh through Ghost and later working back through Sweet and Honey and Cosmic Invention, this mode feels like a welcome homecoming for me. The songwriter’s long arched over into the mystic touches, feeling every bit as otherworldly as the Tolkien-referencing plucks of Bo Hansson or the ritualistic runs of Ash Ra Temple. On Nowhere, Batoh dips back into those modes, while also proving that he’s picked up new habits along the way. He picks at American blues on “Devil Got Me,” and skews towards a a tougher, almost ‘90s blooze approach on “Sundown,” but he manages to keep the album from feeling like a hodgepode. Its more like a journal of psychedelic damnation – a sketchbook of psych-folk-blues embattlement as divined by someone at his own crossroads. Maybe Batoh’s isn’t as famous as Robert Johnson, but it still feels elemental.



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Gong Gong Gong – “Siren b/w Something’s Happening”

Beijing’s Gong Gong Gong tap into the tradition of bomb-bare psych blues. There’s not a drum in sight but the band is pounding that pulse as hard as Lightnin’ and John Lee. The pair herald the swell of a storm on lead single “Siren,” culminating in a feedback squall that’s not unhinged, but at the very least, unsettling. On the flip they let the floodwaters rip from the getgo, boiling their strings in a bath of fuzz and foam that’s thick as molten honey. Still the rhythm pulses and there’s a sense that Gong Gong Gong are either running from something sinister or running with it, bringing a deluge of doom to all who crowd their path.


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