The Go-Betweens: G Stands For Go-Betweens (Vol. 1) (Domino) In this era when the biggest musical superstars are commemorated via a non-stop flow of box sets—how many volumes is Bob Dylan up to now?—those few projects devoted to truly glorifying and documenting comparative unsung heroes are to be treasured. And you can do no better than this, a new boxed anthology celebrating the remarkable work of Australia’s Go-Betweens, who from the late ‘70s onward made albums both maddeningly catchy and strikingly deep, unlike very, very few others. This new set, put together by the commendable humans at Domino Records, who have similarly realized the long-term worth of Orange Juice, the Triffids and Robert Wyatt among others, is simply a collector’s dream. Including four vinyl LPs and four CDs comprising their first 3 albums and a jaw-dropping array of collectables, the set is loaded with extras like a silkscreen poster, a press release, complimentary WAV files, a lush, detail-filled book, and is being marketed as a “deluxe limited package”—meaning that it is indeed numbered and limited, and more fully explored as a retail experience here. But as bands go, and as deluxe box sets go, the Go-Betweens and this package are peerless, any opportunity to re-hear the band’s 1983 classic Before Hollywood (one of the best albums ever? Yes, maybe), included here, is pure gold, and this music sounds as timeless now as it was the day it was recorded. A labor of love through and through.
George Ezra: Wanted On Voyage (Columbia) With his very deep voice, his UK buzz, and his Stateside touring with the likes of Sam Smith, Brit singer George Ezra is but 21 years old and making an unexpectedly large mark at this moment. The hype is that there is no hype—and this is good—and it is the sound and the sonic luster of the tasteful music on the tracks here that are making consumer connections that will ideally last for the long term. That said, while he is good, he is not strikingly unique, and the overall feel of Wanted On Voyage—is this a pun?—is not unlike that of transitional ‘80s popstar Colin Vearncombe, who under the name Black recorded a number of excellent, atmospheric albums and then, as is often the case, faded from our collective consciousness. Like Mr. Vearncombe, Mr. Ezra would need a massive Stateside hit, and fast, to register for more than a year here.
Jamie Cullum: Interlude (Blue Note) A fine showing from top-selling UK jazz vocalist Jamie Cullum, whose acclaim overseas, matched by his nationality, have tended to make him an exotic flavor at best to most hardcore U.S. jazzers. He is extremely talented, with an impeccable sense of rhythm, so this record is instantly agreeable, true--but what makes it particularly notable is the repertoire, the 15 songs sung on the U.S. version of this album, all of which are jazz classics some fans might not realize actually have lyrics. Not just a great listen, but an education unto itself. Between “Walkin’,” “Sack Of Woe,” “Interlude” “Come Rain Or Come Shine” and other tried-and-true classics, we’re being offered a 21st century version of a high-class Georgie Fame set, played, performed and sung with grace, style and a palpable love for the core of pure, soothing jazz. A fine showing for Cullum, and a great introduction to the raw material for a new generation.
Ron Nagle: Bad Rice (Omnivore Recordings) It’s probably safe to take for granted that every month or so an absolutely fantastic album that sold next to nothing upon its release will be reissued, generally in remastered and expanded form, and referred to as an unsung masterpiece that should have sold a million copies. And you know what? That’s OK. Especially if we’re talking about Bad Rice, which was recorded by former Mystery Trend member Ron Nagle and released by Warner Brothers in 1970 and, though it sold very little, burned the ears of nearly everyone who heard its unique hybridization of Stones/Ry Cooder/Little Feat bluesrock and saw something precious there. Nagle would later be part of San Francisco’s equally undersung Durocs—also much worth hearing—but its what’s on these discs, the original 1970 set bolstered by some dandy demos, that makes this collection unbeatable. Great contextualizing in the liner notes by Gene Sculatti, but as for the music itself: It sounds as great now as it did in 1970. And it sounded great then.
Paul Kelly: Paul Kelly Presents The Merri Soul Sessions (Gawd Aggie Recordings) Those who’ve been following the remarkably consistent career of Australian singer/songwriter Paul Kelly—the man who can do no wrong aesthetically, and hasn’t been doing it now since 1981 or so—will enjoy the release of this set, which combines four singles he was involved with last year as well as a few newer tracks recorded since then. One of pop’s very finest songwriters, Kelly writes tunes very easily covered--and here his songs are sung by friends Clary Browne, Viki and Linda Bull, Dan Sultan, Kira Puru and, not incidentally, Kelly himself. Highlights include Vika’s Bull’s cover of Kelly’s classic “Sweet Guy” (from his 1989 set So Much Water So Close To Home), which is so strikingly compact and precise in its structure it helps contextualize most of the rest of the great material here. A must for Paul Kelly fans, and a great listen for anyone else who may hear it. Highly recommended.
Punch Brothers: The Phosphorescent Blues (Nonesuch) Just as today’s best-selling pop artists seem to have cast their respective lots with Scandinavian songwriters with an uncanny knack for insanely memorable hooks and melodies—an almost scientific knack—there are a few equally skilled American musicians who know their future may cannot healthily rest on the working schedule of a few in-demand Europeans…so off they go. And in the case of the Punch Brothers, that means playing sophisticated music that some might call bluegrass—though it borders on jazz and much more—but sounds about as modern as contemporary music can get. With current members including Chris Thile, Gabe Witcher, Noam Pikelny, Chris Eldridge and Paul Kowert, the Punch Brothers are astoundingly skilled, non-show-offy, and pretty much pushing at the vanguard of really great music you need to listen to right now. This record would be a great place to start.
Twerps: Range Anxiety (Merge) Worlds they rise and fall, as the Incredible String Band once noted--but fabulous bands with an uncanny knack for drilling into our psyche with tunes, riffs and lyrics? Maybe less so. Though as this quietly understated disc drives home with repeated listening, there is something going on Way Down South—be it Australia or New Zealand—that gives an awful lot of bands down there a special edge. Melbourne’s Twerps are especially good: You’ll of course hear the Go-Betweens here, but maybe also hints of the Bats, the Clean, and any other down there pop group you can think of that likes twangy guitar, sparkling melodies, minor keys, and habitual understatement. Range Anxiety is very good indeed: Songs, playing, lyrics, mood, it is one of a kind, it does not compromise in the least, and it is readily hummed. "Quietly unspectacular" doesn't really do it justice.
Venom: From The Very Depths (Spinefarm) In a world where insta-sensations like Meghan Trainor can arrive all superstar-like with debut albums cleverly titled Title, it’s nice to know historic, Spinal Tap-fodder Black Metal bands such as Britain’s Venom can carry on their divinely Satanic mission with pure devotion rather than fame as their ultimate endgame. Together since 1979, and now only including one original member—bassist/vocalist Conrad “Cronos” Lant—Venom may more represent a concept (a genre’s forefathers, cool name, nice hair, etc.) than staggeringly original playing, true. But there is an awful lot of enjoyable, excessive listening on From The Very Depths that makes Venom circa 2015 more enjoyable and innovative than an army of Meghan Trainors any day.