Between the Grammys and last weekend’s Super Bowl halftime show, and the insanely whacked out world of today’s social media in overdrive, you’d think the entire world has embraced pop music like never before.
But Bruno Mars vs. the Red Hot Chili Peppers? Really?
I don’t know about you, but most everyone I know thinks Bruno Mars is an extremely talented dude with not too much “there” there! And the Red Hot Chili Peppers? Obnoxious, shirtless, and tuneless!
In short? That’s why football is best!
Broken Bells: After The Disco (Columbia) While the union of Brian Burton (aka Danger Mouse) and the Shins’ James Mercer seemed an ostensible one-off back in 2010, with album No. 2 here—combined with everyone’s short memory span—the pair seem very much a band here, and the album both surprisingly delightful and "bandish." Perhaps in keeping with the album title, there are several unexpectedly retro sonic cues—vocal hints of Bad Company & Foreigner, no lie—but it’s all subtle, moody, evocative, and well done. Oddly fascinating that a week after Daft Punk wins big for embracing the analog past, here’s another take by a pair as equally clued in, no?
Paul Rodgers: The Royal Sessions (429) Speaking of Bad Company, as I just was, here’s a case of that band’s former lead singer looking back yet another decade—and in this case to surprisingly strong results. Rodgers, whose work with Brit rockers Free in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s helped define an entire genre, here salutes the sound of ‘60s Memphis and the Stax & Volt labels, and—thanks to the participation of many of the musicians who played on the originals—sounds strong, assured, and surprisingly authentic. Among the covered classics: “I Thank You,” “I Can’t Stand The Rain,” “Born Under A Bad Sign” and Isaac Hayes’ immortal take on “Walk On By”—which, with all respect to Rogers, would be difficult to better. Recorded in Memphis’ Royal Studios, home of producer Willie Mitchell and the Hi Records crew, the album has the expected solid groove and is clearly a labor of love for Rodgers, who at 64 still sings better than almost any rock ‘n’ roll singer you can name.
Nicole Atkins: Slow Phaser (Oh’Mercy!) A very strong new album from singer Atkins, who’s going the independent route here via her own label, but sonically giving up nothing whatsoever both in terms of songs, arrangements and sonic sophistication. Working again with Swedish producer Tore Johannson, there for her 2007 debut Neptune City, Atkins has crafted a powerful, haunting set that she’s termed “a beautiful dark desert disco record,” and the description is entirely apt. She remains an underrated singer whose finest work manages to evoke both Spectoresque rock and today’s cutting-edge best, and with Slow Phaser she’s sounding better than ever.
Mike Bloomfield: From His Head To His Heart To His Hands (Columbia/Legacy) Few musicians in pop music are better served by a well-curated box set than legendary guitarist Michael Bloomfield. His classic works—of which there are many—often did not appear under his own name, but rather Bob Dylan (on whose Highway 61 Revisited he played), the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, the Electric Flag, and Janis Joplin, among others. Not incidental were his collaborations with musician Al Kooper, his bandmate on the Dylan sessions and fellow participant on the classic 1968 “jam session” Super Session and its memorable live followup, The Live Adventures Of Mike Bloomfield And Al Kooper. Kooper, who produced the set with obvious love and affection, has assembled a fine 3-disc sampling of Bloomfield’s most conspicuous successes—most of which, ideally, will send you out to pick up the sampled work in its entirety. Considering how both Kooper and Bloomfield were major players on the Columbia roster in the late ‘60s, would be especially nice to see all of their work (as well as that of Electric Flag & Bloomfield collaborator Nick Gravenites) made domestically available yet again, but this is a very nice start. Disc 4 of this box set is a DVD featuring Bob Sarles’ Sweet Blues: A Film About Mike Bloomfield, and for newcomers, or those simply curious about the guitarist, it’s as good a place to start as any.
Snowbird: Moon (Bella Union) A lush, rewarding landscape produced by two very interesting individuals: Simon Raymonde, former Cocteau Twin and current head of the Bella Union label, and American singer-songwriter Stephanie Dosen, who’s recorded for the label and is apparently the author of the paperback Woodland Knits: Over 20 Enchanting Patterns—a credit that, to be honest, one rarely types! The arrangements here are sophisticated, sentimental and appropriately dreamy; Dosen’s vocals are a wonderful fit, melodic and soothing; and, in all, this is exactly the sort of album that will probably end up being someone somewhere’s favorite of the year. Opening track “I Heard The Owl Call My Name” kind of rocks, all things considered.
Orange Juice: You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever, Rip It Up, Texas Fever, Orange Juice (Domino) In a world where music writers are regularly offered up the complete works of Bob Dylan, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones to review—for the nine-millionth time—let’s devote a little space here to the release of the four absolutely brilliant albums by ‘80s rockers Orange Juice, the Glasgow-based band led by Edwyn Collins who despite their enormous musical influence over the years never really sold the volume of records they might’ve. Aside from the fabulous 2010 Domino box set Coals To Newcastle (now available on Amazon for just $3,898.00!) and some scattered retrospectives, not much OJ has been available Stateside. All are recommended, but 1982’s You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever is recommended most. Self-aware, self-deprecating, but not necessarily self-absorbed, Orange Juice were absolutely unique, one of a kind, and one of pop music’s best band’s ever. Buy them all!
The Dream Syndicate: The Day Before Wine And Roses (Omnivore) Having moved to Los Angeles in 1986, must confess to having experienced the so-called “Paisley Underground,” when it was at its prime, from a distance. While I’d thought the Rain Parade had the most promise, and the Three O’Clock the best taste in cover songs, it was that very first Dream Syndicate album, The Days Of Wine And Roses, that stood out. This set, a live radio performance recorded prior to that 1982 debut and first issued in 1994, is a great reminder of what made that band so interesting: The band’s affection for rock outliers, striving for a musical territory that could encompass the best of the Velvet Underground, Television and Neil Young and still sound like their very own. They were pretty good at that, as you can hear.
Present: Le Poison Qui Rend Fou and Triskaidekaphobie (both Cuneiform) Two unique releases from the art-inclined Cuneiform label worthy of your attention: Both are from Present, a Belgian symphonic rock group that’s a spin-off of the better-known Univers Zero combo, again who specialized in symphonic rock—which might be best described as a cross between chamber music, Magma, and King Crimson-esque British art rock. Both of these sets were recorded in the early ‘80s and they’re quite good, surprisingly accessible, and as suitable an introduction as any to the entire European Rock In Opposition movement. Which you may find interesting, if you’ve got a lot of time on your hands. Good stuff.
Brotherhood: The Complete Recordings (Real Gone Music) Glad to see Real Gone Music going after albums like this: The complete works of Brotherhood, one-time spin-off band of Paul Revere & The Raiders--who released three albums on RCA Records in the late ‘60s that sold next to nothing and vanished, as did the band itself. Comprised of Drake “The Kid” Levin, Phil “Fang” Volk and Mike “Smitty” Smith, the band issued two straight pop albums under the name Brotherhood and an arty “freakout” session in between as Friend Sound--and while all three sound interesting and well-crafted in 2014, there were no hits then and there are no hits now. But it’s a fascinating listen throughout, and a revealing look at what some of the biggest pop bands of that era had to go through when Top 40 became a dirty word and hipness became hipper than ever.