Quickies: Wilco, Tortoise, Cyril Neville

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December 17, 2008. That’s the last time a non-jazz record has appeared on a Quickies column. In the intervening half-year there’s been so many fresh non-jazz records that merits at least a few paragraphs, and sometimes the full fledged reviews can’t adequately cover ’em all. So guess what…it’s a Quickies devoted exclusively to music that doesn’t start with and “j” and end with a “z.”

Just in recent weeks I’ve seen some which dropped that came under serious consideration for inclusion, but since I try to keep it down to three or so, some pretty big names got left out. One of them is Elvis Costello, who has a new T-Bone Burnett collaboration Secret Profane And Sugarcane, but I didn’t find much to say about it, aside from two or three tracks. It’s well made, to be sure, but the album feels like it was little more than a well-polished genre exercise. The other album I was tempted to devote some written thoughts toward is Iggy Pop’s diversionary tactic Preliminaries. It’s really not all that bad, actually, although it’s bound to appeal to fans of Tom Waits more than fans of The Stooges. But I need to digest to that one some more before I can say anything substantial about it.

What did make the cut were those I can conjure up more enthusiasm for. One is an alt-rock record, another delves in post-rock, and lastly a blues record with a strong Louisiana connection, always a plus around here. So for this time around, jazz is dead, but the music remains very much alive:

Wilco Wilco (The Album)

A couple of years ago I thought that Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky was one of the two or three best rock albums of 2007 and other critics obviously agreed, as it ended up on many a year-end list. The band seemed to have found a formidable formula settling into an early-seventies rock vibe, as well as bringing on board a guitarist who provided the band with a enviable one-two punch: the combination of Jeff Tweedy’s tight melodies/beautifully nuanced vocals with the Rottweiler guitar of Nels Cline.

Wilco has had a history of evolving, so their upcoming self-titled release came at a fork in the road: do they keep moving forward or do they stick with the winning formula they stumbled upon on Sky Blue Sky? The answer seems to be the latter.

As a sequel-type of record, this album provides diminishing returns, but only slightly. That is to say, it’s still quite good, and there are plenty of songs that demand the repeat button. “Wilco (The Song)” is a succinct, three-minute indie rock cruncher. “Bull Black Nova,” guaranteed to be most everyone’s favorite cut on the album, rings with an urgent repeating note and climaxes with a sick, whacked solo by Cline at the end. You will not that kind of guitar playing on any other rock band, as Cline is an original. If you have been reading this space long enough, you already know that, naturally.

“Country Disappeared” stands in direct contrast to “Bull,” a sublime, piano based breezy melody that leverages Tweedy’s country roots without really being country. Two songs, “You And I” (video below) and “You Never Know,” coming one right another, interestingly quote George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” in different spots.

Waiting until their seventh album to assign the self-titled moniker signals to the world that “this is who we are.” If it’s true that Wilco’s journey from their alt-country beginnings has ended here, they have found a nice spot on which to settle down.

Wilco goes on sale in both CD and digital form on June 30.

Tortoise Beacons Of Ancerstorship

For a while now, I’ve been trying to wrap my brain around the whole “post rock” concept. While no description neatly fits all bands who play this style, the music to me sounds like “anti rock” made by ironically borrowing components of rock, especially Canterbury Scene (Soft Machine) and Krautrock (Can). But there’s often no soloing and no singing; both are eschewed in favor of moods, textures and shifting series of riffs. An ambient bent can be detected in its softer passages, too. Some post rock incorporates some jazz elements to it, and sometimes even gets called “jazz-rock,’ but from what I’ve heard, those elements are pretty minimal. In a nutshell, it’s the alternative to alternative rock.

Even as I’ve been listening closely to Marco Benevento’s records and sampled some Sigur Rós , I still can’t quite locate the center of this music. But post rock came along well before these acts, and Chicago-based Tortoise’s Millions Now Living Will Never Die from back in 1995 was one of the genre’s earliest benchmark albums.

Which brings me to this album, the latest by Tortoise. Beacons Of Ancestorship doesn’t really solve the puzzle for me, but doesn’t mean it isn’t an intriguing listen. “High Class Slim Came Floatin’ In” is a groove propelled by a snare drum with brushes and a thick slab of a Kraftwerk-style synth plopped on top of it. “Prepare Your Coffin” (video below) is one of this group’s more concise melodies, with some tough rock bass lines. “Gigantes” has some exotic and compelling percussion arrangem
ent going on, while “Yinxianghechengqi” grunts and growls with a punk sensibility. While the bass and drums groove is deadly, “Minors” probably got its name from its melody being a series of minor chords.

Yeah, I think I can dig this record, even if I can’t decide if I like the music style Tortoise plies their trade in. The grooves and the off-center ambiance of these songs are just a little bit too irresistible. Beacons is coming out tomorrow.

Cyril Neville Brand New Blues

When the topic of the Neville Brothers come up, it’s usually and honey-voice Aaron or the Meters cornerstone Art that get the most mention. However, Charles and Cyril have been serious players in the New Orleans R&B scene, too. Cyril, after all, provided his percussion and vocal help for the Meters just as they were peaking with Fire On The Bayou (that’s his charming coonass rambling on “They All Ask’d for You”) and he quickly proved to be an indispensable member of the Neville Brothers, where he brought his love for reggae and other forms of world music to the group, which did much to shape the group’s sound. On some days “My Blood” is my favorite cut from the Neville’s Yellow Moon because of his sincere and passionate lead vocal. Outspoken and street tough—he once survived a brutal throat slashing—he became the conscious of the Brothers and an outspoken advocate, famously authoring an angry article about injustice and why he won’t return to New Orleans after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina (Neville lives in Austin, TX these days).

Now I don’t believe that burning passion always translates into good music, but I do believe in that Cyril’s case it makes his music better, with a focus and clarity that’s often lacking in even many of his contemporaries these days. It’s his passion that to a large degree is the driving force behind Brand New Blues, and combined with the African, Caribbean and Creole temperament of his blues music, it’s a little bit like Taj Mahal. Actually, if Taj made Brand New Blues it would be considered one of his better records; that’s how good this record is.

And why is that? Because Taj finds the blues in just about every style, mood and tempo of roots music, and so does Neville. The kickoff track “I Found Joy” (see video below) is a buoyant, second-line blues in the proud tradition of Prof. Longhair. “Brand New Blues” exudes that Hi Records soul sound of Al Green, even as it’s got a funkier edge. Neville moves headlong into funk-rock with “Shake Your Gumbo,” a riff-heavy number mashed up with rich African percussion that Neville pulls off with the swaggering persona of Slim Harpo. “I’ll Take Care of You” thrives in Bobby “Blue” Bland territory. “Cream Them Beans” is a playful rewrite of “Scratch My Back,” and “Move My Mountain” is a hand-clapping gospel number. The extended closer, Bob Marley’s “Slave Driver” is a slow blues replete with gutter-low guitar and Neville’s convincing rendering of despair, turning the song into a heart-wrenching lament over a city exploited and neglected (post-Katrina New Orleans).

Brand New Blues has been out since April 7, but I haven’t seen much press on it since then. It needs more notice; blues records this gritty, honest and culturally rich don’t come around that often. Catch it while it’s still fresh.

“Quickies” are mini-record reviews of new or upcoming releases, or “new to me.” Some albums are just that much more fun to listen to than to write about.

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