Fricke's Picks: The Octopus Project, “Murder Ballads and Disaster Songs 1913-1938” and Roy Wood - Rolling Stone
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Fricke’s Picks: The Octopus Project, “Murder Ballads and Disaster Songs 1913-1938” and Roy Wood

Happy Machine Music
Machines don’t make music — people do. And going by the bright action-packed gurgle, bam and squeak of their third album, the Octopus Project — a mostly instrumental analog-electronics dance band from Austin, Texas — are smart pop scientists and total party animals, like Stereolab with happy feet. And a stopwatch — the thirteen songs on Hello, Avalanche (Peek-A-Boo) are all tightly composed bundles of synthesized whoop and circus-calliope cheer, dotted with throaty Duane Eddy-treble guitar and powered by prancing-elephant drumming. The closest thing here to conventional club-remix electronica is the thumping near-techno of “MMAJ.” But for all of the willful yesterday in the Octopus Project’s discotheque blend of Switched-On Bach and Kraftwerk’s Autobahn, there is a delightful, disciplined modernism in the album’s brisk parade of hooks and the songs’ densely layered brevity. Compared to the purple-surf rock of “Bees Bein’ Strugglin’ ” and the mermaid-choir effect of Yvonne Lambert’s theremin in “I Saw the Bright Shinies,” the Prodigy are so 1997.

Apocalypse Then
American folk and blues were, in the early twentieth century, more than entertainment. They were broadcasting. Long before there was a Fox News, country pickers the Skillet Lickers, the balladeer Blind Alfred Reed, the slide guitarist and yodeler Cliff Carlisle and the prewar blues legend Charlie Patton were the “We Report, You Decide” network of their day: adapting the terrible things that happened to good people in real life — floods, murders, train wrecks, disease, crop failures — into lyrical bulletins, waltz tunes and moral hymns that long outlived the headlines and police reports that inspired them. People Take Warning! Murder Ballads and Disaster Songs 1913-1938 (Tompkins Square) is nothing but that bad mojo made poetic. You already know some of these tales, in electrified form — Kansas Joe and Memphis Minnie’s account of the 1927 Mississippi River flood, “When the Levee Breaks” (recast as hell on earth by Led Zeppelin, although Minnie’s lead guitar here could give Jimmy Page the sweats); Furry Lewis’ and the Skillet Lickers’ respective versions of the story of ill-fated railroad engineer Casey Jones (the grist for the Grateful Dead’s telling); Patton’s 1929 hit about the scourge of the cotton farmer, “Boll Weevil Blues” (a subject more recently given a rockin’ good time by the White Stripes). You will be less familiar with Charlotte and Bob Miller’s bizarre dramatization of “Ohio Prison Fire” — as polite parlor-room Shakespeare with violin — and the proto-Little Richard way Elder Curry likens an influenza epidemic to the wrath of God in “Memphis Flu.”

Rolling Rock
British singer-guitarist-songwriter Roy Wood was still in the Move and some years from co-founding the Electric Light Orchestra when he completed his solo debut in 1969. Issued in 1973, Boulders (Harvest) was an all-me feat that, in the making, predated Paul McCartney’s all-solo bow in 1970. It was also a richer triumph, with Wood playing his own ELO’s worth of instruments in songs as good as those he was then giving the Move: the Fifties-malt-shop stomp “Rock Down Low,” the pleading beauty “Dear Elaine” and the gospel raver “Songs of Praise,” with what sounds like a hundred singing Woods stacked up to the church ceiling.


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