!!!: Strange Weather, Isn’t It?

RIYL: LCD Soundsystem, The Rapture, Hot Chip

The indie rock/electronic collective !!! doesn’t make things easy on themselves, or music reviewers. A Google search of the band name, for instance, reveals no matches at all, much less lyrics or a band Web site. (Including the name of the new album, however, nets you lyrics of Tom Waits, Marianne Faithfull and Glenn Frey songs.) Of course with a little more extensive searching you can find pretty much anything about the band you might want to know like, say, how to pronounce the name – any repeating hard consonant sound, apparently, usually represented by ‘chk chk chk’.

I’m guessing this is a sly comment on the repetitive nature of much electronic music, but it was probably unnecessary. These guys rise above the noise without much problem with an effective mix of rock guitar, pounding beats and swirling electronica. There are plenty of other acts doing this, of course, but not many have been around since 1996 and garnered the critical praise heaped on !!!. They have not reached the commercial heights of other similar bands, and that probably won’t change with their fourth album Strange Weather, Isn’t It? Not because it’s not an excellent album (it is) but if it hasn’t happened yet, it’s not likely to. Strange Weather is actually the perfect party soundtrack for your late summer, with propulsive tracks like the album opener “AM/FM,” “Jump Back” and “Hammer.” The entire album flows well and goes by surprisingly fast, even when things get a bit disco-y on “Even Judas Gave Jesus a Kiss.”

Lyrically the album seems to land somewhere between the politically-minded “Louden Up Now” and the more booty-shaking “Myth Takes.” In truth the words mainly pass right through, not making as much of an impression as the music’s tempo and mood. You just keep nodding your head and shaking your butt and, before you know it, it’s over. Actually the easiest thing about the band is listening to them. (Warp Records 2010)


Jesca Hoop: Hunting My Dress

RIYL: Tom Waits, Petra Haden, Laura Marling

The slightly off-kilter wordless harmonies that open Jesca Hoop’s “Whispering Light” immediately inform you that you’re in for a strange and possibly wonderful listening experience. With her folk music pedigree and Tom Waits connection, Hoop creates a sound firmly grounded in traditional instrumentation, with flashes and trickles of oddball noise made strangely beautiful.

Hunting My Dress is one of those records that opens up with repeated listening, for those with the patience and persistence to remain engaged. The charms of “Feast of the Heart” might escape you at first – its distorted vocal and wild-ass percussion are not typical fodder for easy listening. Get past the initial shock of the noise, though, and the layers of longing reveal themselves. The little-girl voice Hoop uses in “Angel Mom” may initially seem put-offish, but listen to it again. Hear how that voice wraps itself around the story of the child whose mother “visited me from beyond,” and determine for yourself whether Hoop could sing in any other register and be as effective.

Or consider the title track, which closes the album, and does so with a nod toward traditional folk singing and tight, multi-part harmony. Hoop’s vision – indeed, her art – can be encapsulated in this very song – her beginnings reflected in the album’s end.

Listeners open to the possibilities of the un-obvious melody, an unexpected noisy flourish, or the simple charms of a plaintive voice telling a story, will likely appreciate the artistry at work in Hunting My Dress. It might take a bit of work to get to that point, but the effort is worth it. (Vanguard 2010)

Jesca Hoop’s Myspace Page
Click to buy Hunting My Dress from Amazon


Dax Riggs: Say Goodnight to the World

RIYL: John Doe, Birdmonster, Jeffrey Lee Pierce

Dax Riggs started as the lead singer of Acid Bath, a sludge/stoner metal band that was heavier than an elephant on Jupiter. After Acid Bath he went onto Agents of Oblivion and then Deadboy & the Elephantmen before finally just going solo with We Sing of Only Blood or Love. With each successive release, Riggs’ sound became more sonically mellow, even if his lyrics and own vocal delivery remained as raw and powerful as ever. On Say Goodnight to the World, Riggs starts strong (and loud) with the blues-rocking title track, and hints of his old metal ways can be heard on songs like “No One Will Be a Stranger” and “Gravedirt on My Blue Suede Shoes.” But the rest of the album is more barren and stark than anything Riggs has recorded to date. It’s occasionally interesting, but after a while the bleakness of it all becomes overbearing. The cover of “Heartbreak Hotel” is interesting, and certainly matches the somber lyrics of the song, but for the most part this album alternates between being horribly depressing, sleep-inducing or background noise.

If you thought Beck’s Sea Change and Nebraska by Springsteen were too upbeat, this is the record for you. (Fat Possum 2010)

Dax Riggs MySpace page


Robert Randolph and the Family Band: We Walk This Road

RIYL: Ben Harper, The Derek Trucks Band, Jimi Hendrix

Pedal steel guitar maestro Robert Randolph has been known more for his hot live shows than his albums, which comes with the territory when you have such instrumental talent and fit in with the jam crowd. But this album may finally help Randolph break through to a wider audience. T Bone Burnett is the producer, and he’s had a magic touch lately. Randolph says he and Burnett sat down and really examined some music history, which has served to maximize Randolph’s authentically bluesy vibe, as well as leading to some choice covers.

Opener “Traveling Shoes” is taken from an old field recording from the 1920s and finds Randolph and his sister Lenesha testifying over some gospel-tinged roots. The song sets a tone for an album that blends blues, gospel and rock in expert fashion. “Shot of Love” offers a cover of the title track from Bob Dylan’s 1981 Christian-tinged album. It’s well done, though it certainly doesn’t approach Jimi Hendrix’s iconic version of “All Along the Watchtower,” something Randolph says he was thinking about as far as trying to get into Jimi’s head on the process of covering Dylan. But Randolph strikes gold on a vibrant rendition of Prince’s “Walk Don’t Walk” that takes the funky song to a truly higher level. The empowering, feel-good jam featuring more harmony assistance from Lenesha is almost certain to become a new live favorite. There’s also a deep cover of John Lennon’s “I Don’t Wanna Be a Soldier Mama,” a well-timed bluesy lament in 2010 as the ridiculous war in Afghanistan surpasses the Vietnam War for Uncle Sam’s longest military engagement.

Another highlight comes with “If I Had My Way,” a modern version of an old Blind Willie Johnson blues that features Ben Harper guesting on guitar and vocals. It’s got an old-timey Delta blues vibe that has Randolph and Harper squaring off with great results. “Dry Bones” also builds off an old blues, which gets pumped up for a tasty workout. “I Still Belong to Jesus” has Randolph playing off his gospel roots, with his liquid steel work shining once more. “I’m Not Listening” delivers some modern blues, with Randolph calling out a century of lies for comeuppance. “Salvation” closes the album with a soulful gospel ballad, featuring piano from Leon Russell and some of Randolph’s tastiest licks.

Randolph and band have been honing their act for an entire decade now and We Walk This Road is their best work yet, as it has a strong flow to it and there’s no desire to skip over tracks. Randolph has evolved from young gun to seasoned master. (Warner Brothers 2010)

Robert Randolph MySpace page


The Whigs:In the Dark

RIYL: Dinosaur Jr., Foo Fighters, The Replacements

In the Dark starts out by rolling over you with a wall of guitars that, far from dissonant and buffeting, instead envelops you like the wind before a promising storm, and like some great thunder, the Whigs continue to prove they are an experience not to be missed.

Coming off their well-received second album, Mission Control, and a series of acclaimed live shows (not the least of which was a standout performance at the 2008 SXSW), it is evident that the hard core touring and energetic playing has only invigorated their songwriting. In the Dark is the Whigs’ best album yet, and one that engages from beginning to end.

The album is power rock, through and through, but it never forgets that melody and rhythm shouldn’t be sacrificed for that power. It is the same for the lyrics, as throughout Parker Gispert is clearly singing from those hidden places where anger and regret fester, but he refuses to either rage or mope. There is as much a sense of resolute energy as anything, even when he sings “Kill Me Carolyn” or questions his lust for “Someone’s Daughter.”

Most of the album openly embraces their primary influence, the more hard-rocking post punk of the Replacements (most evident on “Automatic” and “So Lonely,” with no little bit of the Godfathers thrown in there on the title track and the opening “Hundred/Million.” The production is just tight enough and the arrangements original and lush enough to push it beyond any assumed imitation, and the first five tracks are solid Whigs.

Then, just when it feels like you have a handle on the album, they throw you a hard curve right in the middle. “Dying” comes on and everything shifts into a heavy rhythmic chant full of psychedelic influences. It tosses you into dark places only hinted at up until now. That is the flow of the album. An energetic, but evident descent into the viscera of the music, but then the steady, strong drive that leads us back out; an inverted emotional parabola that never slows, but never lets us off the ride, either. Check out “I Am for Real” as the perfect catharsis moment.

In the Dark ends with a mini-jam session of a song, “Naked,” at times minimalist and echoing, while at others a pulsing rocker. It is one of the more inventive and original works that lets the Whigs flaunt their talent, energy and idiosyncrasies.

Check out In the Dark. It is one of the better albums to come along so far this year, and it should win them new fans while pleasing their faithful. Listen loud! ATO Records 2010

The Whigs MySpace page