The Black Angels
Rating: 3 stars
Austin, Texas, is revered as the home of the annual South by Southwest conference, a bacchanal of old and new music, industry sycophants running amok, good barbecue and bad beer. But Austin also gave us the Black Angels, the group held by many to be the prime mover in the new psychedelic movement.
Roughly a decade into its career, the Black Angels has become a rallying point for a bevy of new bands equally enthralled by the gauzy technicolor wash of fuzz-toned guitars, misty mountaintop vocals, and grooves that insist on taking their time and unfolding slowly that defines the genre. The Black Angels started the Austin Psych Fest, too, and in the time since, copycat versions of the Austin fest have popped up around the country and across the pond.
So, without bothering the mainstream too much, the Black Angels have caused a subtle shift in our musical culture. “Indigo Meadow,” the band’s fourth album, offers a primer in its reverb-laden magic. The 13 songs conspire to create a languid mood, as if they seek to transport the listener to a land where the sky is a comforting purple, and the land beneath it one big comfy pillow. Yes, it’s like that.
If one could only pick a single song to answer the question “What exactly are these guys all about?” that tune would surely be “I Hear Colors (Chromasthesia).” Its echoes of the 13th Floor Elevators are obvious ones, and yet, this sprawling mini-epic doesn’t sound so much like a throwback to the late-’60s as a defiant outstretched hand pointing forward. Like a less befuddled Syd Barrett leading a more muscular early Pink Floyd, bassist/vocalist Alex Mass recounts his giddy trip with a tremoloed glee, while Kyle Hunt’s Farfisa organ floats beneath. If you close your eyes, you can almost see the strobe lights flashing, but happily, the song never gets downright goofy, avoiding parody by steering clear of irony.
“Twisted Light” carries this concept forward, layering grungy guitars atop the ever-present organ in what amounts to a paean to the Doors, circa “Strange Days.”
“Broken Soldier” revels in an early Velvet Underground-like creepiness, as if delivered from behind Lou Reed’s biggest, darkest sunglasses. Its militant stomp propels the tale of a soldier suffering an existential breakdown of sorts: “It’s hard to kill when you don’t know which side you’re on,” Mass intones ominously. “Will you be the same when this all is over? No, you’ll never be the same when this all is over.” Ouch.
“Indigo Meadow” is an excellent album, but the very fact that it so ably encapsulates the contemporary psychedelic movement keeps it from attaining masterpiece status. Ultimately, the Black Angels will have to transcend the very medium it spearheaded in order to break on through to the other side. In the meantime, this album will rather handily provide the soundtrack for a psychedelic summer.
– Jeff Miers
Five Borough Songbook: 20 Composers, 20 New Songs Celebrating New York
Rating: 2 stars
New York City’s Five Boroughs Music Festival commissioned these 20 songs, which have been given several performances around New York and have just been released on this world-premiere recording. It’s an interesting idea. The composers were free to write for one to four voices, accompanied or unaccompanied. They could write their own words or choose someone else’s. They responded with a lot of cleverness. Gilda Lyons’ “Rapid Transit” is all abbreviations and service announcements. Yotam Haber sets a poem by Julia Kasdorf inspired by Psalm 137, and the voices, a cappella, go through weird, haunting twists. Walt Whitman’s poetry inspired Ricky Ian Gordon’s pulsing “O City of Ships.”
Other composers include Daron Hagen, whose work we have enjoyed here in Buffalo, and Matt Schickele, son of Peter Schickele of “PDQ Bach” fame. There is plenty of originality here. Evocative piano accompaniments suggesting the clatter of trains. A song about immigrants explores foreign modalities. The trouble is that beneath all the Sondheim-like melodies, the clever vocal tricks and the jagged, abstract melodies, flawlessly sung, something is missing, and that something is soul. The music all struck me as academic and dull, and overly impressed with itself. The only song that half grabbed me was Jorge Martin’s “City of Orgies, Walks, and Joys!,” a kind of genial blues. I would rather hear a bunch of jazz numbers any day.
– Mary Kunz Goldman
Rating: 3 stars
It’s been 29 years since Molly Ringwald last saw 16 candles on her birthday cake. America’s onetime sweetheart, bless her, actually seems to have done that extraordinary thing in show business for beloved child stars – devised a workable strategy for what to do in her 40s.
Along with this credible new jazz album, she has also begun publishing novels. (News contributing critic Karen Brady said of her authorship of “When It Happens to You” that Ringwald was “all woman and an insightful one at that.”)
What you have to remember about “Except Sometimes” is that this is not just some smash-hit actress of yore deciding in middle age that in the era of Diana Krall and Norah Jones, being a jazz/cabaret singer might be a dandy thing. This is a young woman who even at the height of her popularity in those much-loved John Hughes movies, always hastened to tell interviewers that her father was a jazz musician and that she’s been singing in jazz clubs virtually since childhood.
She is absolutely authentic then when she says of the “Great American Songbook” that “along with jazz music, Hemingway and the Marx Brothers, I feel that it is one of our national treasures. The songs penned by these brilliant composers and lyricists have thrilled and inspired me since I was a child. I have found equal inspiration in many of the great singers who have sung these songs. Bessie, Ella, Blossom and Susannah have all taught – and continue to teach me –how to sing.”
For all the authenticity of Ringwald as a jazz singer and her exquisite taste in choosing Bessie Smith, Ella Fitzgerald, Blossom Dearie and Susannah McCorkle as role models, it’s still hard not to listen to her on this disc and not think of her as an actress doing an impersonation of a jazz singer.
Importantly though, her performance in the role of an emerging jazz singer on this disc is a very good one. For all the non-Dearie cutesiness that can occasionally be heard in high notes, her low notes are warm and delicious.
In the endless disgorgement of jazz singers we’re living through on discs these days, she is one of the most welcome newcomers in a long time.
– Jeff Simon
On the Road: Score and Songs
Rating: 3½ stars
Walter Salles’ long-awaited film of Jack Kerouac’s primal American road novel opens here Friday. The soundtrack, from pianist/composer Gustavo Santaolalla, though, has long been rather wonderful, with such wonderments as Slim Gaillard’s double-talk scat as “Yip Rock Heresy” and “Hit That Jive Jack,” Billie Holiday’s “A Sailboat in the Moonlight,” Charlie Parker’s “Ko-Ko,” Ella Fitzgerald’s “I’ve Got the World on a String,” Dinah Washington’s “Mean and Evil Blues,” Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker’s “Salt Peanuts” and Son House’s “Death Letter Blues.”
In Santaolalla’s soundtrack band, by the way, are no less than bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Brian Blade.