Quickies: A return to rock with four new releases

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by Pico

It’s been a long time since I rock and rolled…

-Led Zeppelin

What can I say, I’ve let a lot of release dates on the mainstream side go by without any mention. And so, it’s catch-up time. Three major acts, plus an act with a major cause. No jazz in sight, just the straight dope on righteous rock in various permutations. As we ’round the bending into the heart of the holiday shopping season, I’ve mustered up four new albums that may (or may not) deserve consideration for gifting.

Four records doesn’t really come close to covering all the recent fresh arrivals of the last few months on the rock side, but it’s a start. Now whether I’ll get to finish is anybody’s guess…

Norah Jones The Fall

The title might be more of a description of what Jones might think will happen to her standing among her early fans, rather than referring to the current season. Jones has always been more than a country-tinged jazz crooner, but she had previously chosen to reveal her other sides discreetly by appearing on records headlined by others (Peter Malick), participating in one-off bands (The Little Willies) or even leading a band incognito (El Madmo). 2007’s Not Too Late put everyone on notice that Jones was spreading her artistic wings and at this point it would have been a shocker had she returned to the Come Away With Me blueprint for her next album.

Instead, that next album coming out November 17, The Fall, completes the transformation she’s suggested for some time, now. At least on the surface, it has more in common than the tongue-in-cheek El Madmo than it does Feels Like Home, even though it’s a much more serious affair. That’s because the songs seem more like they were composed on guitar than piano, even when the keyboards are driving them. The jazz of Norah Jones gets altogether ignored in favor of an indie singer-songwriter presentation until the ninth track (“Back To Manhattan”) and the third one, “Light As A Feather,” is hardly the breezy Brazilian-flavored classic of Return To Forever, but the heavy-hearted alt-rock personality of its co-writer, Ryan Adams. She serves up a few more left turns than before, like dropping an F-bomb on “Stuck,” and all the way to the charming, stripped down “Makin’ Whoopie” sound-alike “Man Of The Hour.”

Produced by Jacquire King (Kings of Leon, Modest Mouse), the whole proceedings has a somewhat scratchy and muddled sound that Jones’ smooth vocals clashes against. The contrast works for the most part, because the distorted sound is not overly done, but there are times when a raspier voice might have worked better, and Jones couldn’t sing abrasive if she tried. She deserves a tip of the hat for defying categorization while keeping the craftsmanship high, but the artistic high point reached on Not Too Late hasn’t been tested by The Fall. Like that last album, though, this one makes Norah Jones a more compelling and interesting artist than she was when she was racking up Grammies.

Porcupine Tree The Incident

In a pretty crowded field of some rather talented prog-rock bands, Porcupine Tree stands out, enough so that they’re about the only one that gets attention here on a regular basis. That last album Fear Of A Blank Planet made 2007’s year-end list. Last September 15 brought the next full release, The Incident. This album continues down the path of establishing the group as a more melodically-inclined, less wank-inclined progressive rock band—so much so, that some progheads might even disclaim them. For The Incident, the tactic of having a “side-long” suite of movements that make up a larger piece sounds very much like a classic move of the genre; nevertheless, these discreet segments stand on their own.

That’s no criticism where I’m concerned, though. Even well developed rock suites can be difficult to sit through for more than a few listens. Many of the tracks here are compact sized (only two of the 18 tracks run over seven minutes), which means that leader Steven Wilson was intent of moving on to the next idea just as soon as the present idea lost its freshness. If there’s a few weaker numbers in the bunch, no need to hit the skip button, because they don’t have to be endured for long. That said, there are several stronger selections, starting with “Time Flies” (see video of single version below), and also including “The Incident,” “I Drive The Hearse” and among the handful of “non-suite” songs, “Black Dahlia” and the funky and sinister “Bonnie The Cat.” At this point in their history, The Tree has a highly identifiable, polished sound, making it harder to remember which PT album you’re listening to. That’s an acceptable trade-off when these days it’s really hard to be distinctive rock band in the first place.

In all, The Incident is a lot like most any Porcupine Tree record: falling just short of being that groundbreaking magnum opus that every notable prog-rock band has, but it’s a consistently solid, enjoyable effort that puts it a cut above what nearly all its contemporaries are offering these days, even if it doesn’t measure up to the idiom’s classics of yesteryear.

Gov’t Mule By A Thread

Gov’t Mule might be my favorite seventies rock band of the new millenium, if that makes any sense. Their last album Mr. High And Mighty was one of the first new releases reviewed on this site more than three years ago. This time
, the band holed themselves up in Willie Nelson’s Austin, TX studio, wrote the tunes there, and came up with a collection of songs that’s full of grit and fire, but retains the thick soul of their prior work. The Allen Woody Memorial bass chair also got turned over again, going this time to Jorgen Carlsson. I don’t now where this guy came from, but he’s a monster on the four string, someone who can match the power of guitarist Warren Haynes chord for chord without stepping outside the traditional bass player’s role.

By A Thread, on sale since October 26, commences with a butt-whooping track, the Texas rumble of “Broke Down On The Brazos.” The song more than nods towards ZZ Top; Haynes and Billy Gibbons trade fours in an epic exchange of blues licks. The blues connection stays strong on the electrified Delta of “Railroad Boy,” and the psychedelic blues of “Inside Outside Woman Blues #3.” That nine-minute cut is nearly matched in length by the epic “Monday Mourning Meltdown” which isn’t a straight blues, but simmers along nicely, slyly shifting into a jazz groove in the middle like a classic Allman Brothers Band jam.

For songs made up on the spot, there’s a lot of varying moods, sometimes within the same songs. The playing is consistently top notch. This is a band that is now capable if doing just about anything it wants to do, without much preparation. If they can do that in a studio, you can imagine what they are capable of live. See the video of “Brazos” performed in concert below for a taste. It’s refreshing to see a band who responds to success by trying even harder to stay real and rooted in its influences. Which is a big reason why Gov’t Mule is perhaps the best “seventies” rock band out there today.

N.E.D. No Evidence Of Disease

N.E.D. is one of those feel-good stories, mainly because all the band members’ day jobs are about making people feel good. Six gynecologic oncology surgeons from all over the country literally banded together to make music that raises awareness about cancer in women. The band’s name stands for “No Evidence of Disease,” the prognosis they strive to give all their patients. This debut CD (technically, an EP), is a vehicle to raise funds for their N.E.D. Fund of the Gynecologic Cancer Foundation 501(c3) charity. The target is cancer of women’s reproductive systems, something that doesn’t always gets the awareness that breast cancer gets, but is no less important in the search for a cure.

Alright, so how’s the music? The six originals, all written by the various members crafted no-nonsense, guitar-driven rock. The standout track is a mid-tempo groove where Dr. Joanie Hope takes the lead vocals, “Third Person Reality.” It has a good Southern rock vibe to it. The rest of the tracks might not challenge, say, Gov’t Mule, for supremacy in this field. But I can confidently state that they can play rock a whole lot better than any rock star could treat cancer. Given that this band is really just a side diversion from the high-minded and complex work of healing, this is pretty competent stuff.

Little Feat’s Lowell George was known as the Rock ‘n’ Roll Doctor, but N.E.D. are rock ‘n’ roll doctors in the literal sense, hoping that making people feel better through music will translate into other people feeling better through medicine. We should wish them success in this endeavor, since the health success of many others can come from that. For more information, check out their website at nedtheband.org.


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