Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers: Hypnotic Eye (Reprise) There is something that has become disturbingly retro about being a very good rock ‘n’ roll band: It’s almost a veiled insult, a subtle dig at taking a back-to-the-basics approach rather than, say, a more enlightened, exploratory aesthetic push forward. So calling TP & company a very good—one of our best—rock ‘n’ roll bands in some ways seems like a damning them w/faint praise move. And yet: There is something jarringly fine, artful and polished about this album. And really, really good. From its ultra-hip cover, which might’ve plausibly surfaced on RCA’s classical imprint in the early ‘60s, to its varied song array (which at times oddly evokes Cracker oddly evoking Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers), to it creative arrangements and its deliberate embrace of the lyrical cliché, Hypnotic Eye is both topical and timeless, in the same manner as were those early albums by Creedence Clearwater Revival. Petty’s voice honks, is nasal, goes all over the place without sounding repetitive, and that is good; his band, now scarily good, plays choice notes without waste, and that too is good; and the overall effect, here in 2014, is that Petty & the Heartbreakers still matter, rock ‘n’ roll still has some life left in it, and pandering—whether commercially or personally—to gain the largest audience possible is not always the way to go. And it’s their first album in four years.
Eric Clapton & Friends: The Breeze: An Appreciation Of J.J. Cale (Bushbranch/Surfdog) Eric Clapton’s affection for the music of J.J. Cale isn’t breaking news: Aside from covering Cale’s “After Midnight” and “Cocaine” tracks to great commercial success in the ‘70s, he collaborated with the man on their 2006 Road To Escondido album and his own well-known Crossroads guitar festival. This new set, a memorable tribute put together by Clapton and now issued a year after Cale’s death, is about as tasteful an endeavor as you’d expect. Featuring 16 well-know Cale tracks, performed by Clapton and a wealth of guest stars including Tom Petty, Willie Nelson, Mark Knopfler, John Mayer, Don White and Derek Trucks, the album has the same warm and subtle feel as Cale’s own work, a notable sense of underplay that was in some ways his trademark. That it is conveyed here equally underplayed by the guitarist who once made his living playing 15-minute versions of “Spoonful” is no small thing. Despite the shifting cast of characters and their distinctive vocal turns, the overall effect is impeccably J.J. Cale-ish through and through. Good stuff.
Various Artists: Get On Up: The James Brown Story – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Universal) You might imagine that putting a compilation album together encompassing the work of popular music’s most iconic figures might be no small task, and that’s likely so. But putting together a movie soundtrack? Not the same thing. Any movie purporting to document the life of James Brown would literally have to feature a certain array of songs—“I Got You (I Feel Good),” “Please Please Please,” “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag,” and “Cold Sweat,” say—and when additional tracks can draw from a catalog including “Mother Popcorn,” “Try Me” and “Say It Loud – I’m Black And I’m Proud,” you’re more than halfway there. Haven’t seen the movie yet, but it’s difficult to argue with its intent and the massive catalog of quality music it’s likely to expose to a new, young, and certain to be appreciative audience.
Jenny Lewis: The Voyager (Warner Bros.) The first solo album by Rilo Kiley singer Lewis since 2008’s Acid Tongue, new set The Voyager is loaded with personal songs and a little help from a list of friends that essentially tells a story unto itself. On the scene here are Ryan Adams, Beck, and Jonathan Rice, among many others, and the album—put together following the 2010 death of Lewis’s father and the break-up of her band—has a narrative flow that’s a noticeable step up from her earlier work. Who’s going to listen to this? Newcomers to Lewis might listen to album opener “Head Underwater” and hear a vocal twang signalling pop/country crossover; others might hear a batch of songs that, were it 1980, might seem completely at home on albums by Nicolette Larson or Wendy Waldman. Neither point means this album is less than good, timely or perfectly acceptable in 2014—but to fully take it in, more than a few listenings may be in order.
The Dream Academy: The Morning Lasted All Day: A Retrospective (Real Gone) Those in the mood for a just-right slice of ‘80s nostalgia might want to check out this 2-CD collection by England’s Dream Academy, who between their well-known “Life In A Northern Town” and equally fab follow-up “The Love Parade” managed to involve/evoke/namedrop the likes of Nick Drake, Paul Simon, David Gilmour, Peter Buck, and Johnny Marr among others while making three memorable albums. This unexpected remastered collection features liner notes by the band’s Nick Laird-Clowes, a few unreleased tracks and rarities, and the expected supply of agreeably melancholic tunes guaranteed to hurl you smack dab in the middle of your very own John Hughes movie. It’s all surprisingly sturdy, rich material that—not always the case, you’ll note—sounds even better with age, and you’ll enjoy hearing it.
Karen Mantler: Business Is Bad (ECM) Of distinguished lineage—her parents are jazz musicians Carla Bley and Michael Mantler—and the aggressively creative sort, Karen Mantler has left an interesting artistic trail since her 1989 debut album My Cat Arnold. Though she’s appeared in many interesting contexts—whether with her parents’ various projects, playing with the Golden Palominos or recording with Robert Wyatt—one really gets a sense of what she’s about when she’s on her own. Here, backed by Doug Wieselman (guitar, bass clarinet) and Kato Hideki (bass), Mantler’s vocals rest atop her piano and harmonica atmospherics, humorous, surrealistic and deadpan on tracks such as opener “Catch As Catch Can,” and really sound unlike anyone else’s. It is the natural extension of a career that began with her contributing toddler vocals to her mom’s classic Escalator Over The Hill opus in 1971 and has yet to stray into most people’s comfort zones. And this is good.
Stardeath & White Dwarfs: Wastoid (Federal Prism) There is a certain sweet spot to be had when artists successfully combine all that is good about psychedelia to all that is weird—and not deliberately atonal—about industrial rock. And while this is not the best possible description of the music that Oklahoma’s Stardeath & White Dwarfs play, it gets the point across about as well as, say, the title of 2010’s The Flaming Lips And Stardeath And White Dwarfs With Henry Rollins And Peaches Doing ‘Dark Side Of The Moon.’ Featuring Dennis Coyne—nephew of the Lips’ famous Wayne—Stardeath are happily, randomly prog-inspired and never less than sonically fascinating. From its enchanting album cover and title to that odd factory-pounding sound populating several tracks here—at least it sounded like that in my car—Wastoid is a great way to spend your summer.
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Wildest Dreams: Wildest Dreams (Smalltown Supersound) If you want to make the leap re hipness by association via the use of album covers, let the Clash salute Elvis with London Calling, Pavement salute Ambergris with Watery, Domestic, and this combo salute Randy California’s Kapt. Kopter And The (Fabulous) Twirly Birds—which likely sold more copies than Ambergris, but the point still carries. “This combo” is in fact Brit DJ Harvey Bassett, known to many as DJ Harvey, and a man who can embrace dance, garage rock, and—clearly—the albums that populate the bottom crates of thrift stores worldwide. A highly enjoyable romp, rocking by definition, it’s a casually tossed-off, psychedelic delight. Recommended.