Quickies: New Release Roundup 2010, Vol. 1

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The hottest band in the land just might be the Drive-By Truckers

by S. Victor Aaron

Funny how it seems I have plenty of time to listen to new music and precious little to write about. There’s about 9GBs of albums in my iPod rotation and I’m familiar with a good majority of it. And I want to tell the whole danged world about each and every one of them in the form of full-fledged reviews. But alas, I can’t. That’s where Quickies comes in. And since it’s clearance time, I’m going to use this format to give one paragraph impression on each of these gems that have been released since the beginning of the year. It will take more than just one installment to get caught up, though, so I’ll tackle six in this article and six more later this week. They’ll be some recognizable names in this mix, and a few others that aren’t. None of these are straight-ahead jazz that I’ve been devoting a lot of space to, but there’s some fusion, as well as blues, rock and who knows what else.

Most of these deserve more than bite-size reviews, but bite-size is better than no meal at all, so here is the appetizer tray full of goodies:

1. Elephant9 Walk The Nile: Elephant9 is an organ-based power trio that’s kind of a throwback to Argent, ELP and a little bit of ’70’s Miles. But they really evoke contemporaries like Medeski, Martin and Wood and especially Niacin even more. This Norwegian troupe could nominally be called acid jazz, but the driving rhythms and straight ahead melodies makes it more acid rock. As a follow-up to their debut Dodovoodoo, they suffer no sophomore slump; all three players are intense and take no prisoners: “Aviation” is as balls-out as you can get with drums/bass/B-3, while the title cut suggests what the Bad Plus might sound like plugged in. This makes a near perfect instrumental album for rock fans who have no interest in jazz. Walk The Nile drops on March 30.

2. Eric Bibb Booker’s Guitar: We profiled Bibb’s 2008 release Get OnBoard and confirmed then that Bibb is nothing if not consistent. That axiom holds true even when he takes little detours, as he’s done here. This year’s offering is inspired by a National Steel guitar once owned by Delta Blues legend Bukka White. As such, Bibb emphasizes the Delta blues tradition in originals and covers more than usual, even though Bibb’s brand of folk has always been blues-based. But this time, he strips the arrangements down to just his voice, acoustic guitar and sometimes a harmonica. He gives each song a different treatment, sometimes, leaning in a gospel direction, other times, more folkish and always heavy on the blues. Booker’s Guitar is the unvarnished, down-to-the-roots Eric Bibb, which has always been the essence of his music, anyway.

3. Drive-By Truckers The Big To-Do: The DBT’s prior CD Brighter Than Creation’s Dark got scrutinized here when it came out a couple of years ago and at the time I thought it was a generally fine record that got less interesting toward the end. This time, there’s virtually no filler, in fact, only the two tracks contributed by bassist Shonna Tucker bring the level down from every good/excellent to just good. Maybe even then it’s because they seem a little out of place on the record more than anything else. But both Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley bang out winner after winner–the first four or five tracks are downright killer–with a big, gruff sound that captures all the soul and power of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers and the raw emotion of Crazy Horse, and then goes them one more. The lyrics are direct, honest and spin little compelling stories of characters hanging on to strands of hope in the face of despair in early twenty-first century working class America. From the perspective of the Deep South, as always. The Big To-Do might be the Truckers’ best album to date, and they’ve had plenty of great albums already.

4. John Zorn In Search Of The Miraculous: It might surprise some, but Zorn makes a lot of melodious, relative mellow records, like O’o last year, and this year it’s In Search of the Miraculous. Zorn doesn’t actually play on this record, but as arranger, producer, and composer, his fingerprints are all over it. Rob Burger’s piano usually carries out deceptively direct harmonies and sometimes asymmetrical phrases but it’s often Kenny Wollesen’s vibes that stands out. In fact, this has the unmistakable feel of a Gary Burton record. That’s certainly not a bad thing to call an album, but even though Zorn pitches have been fastballs as much as curve balls, I still scratch my head when he plays it “straight.”

5. John Hiatt The Open Road: I should probably listen to this one more before passing any judgement, because it’s still growing on me. Hiatt’s voice is getting wearier and worn all the time (and it was a little weary and worn to begin with), but his songs are made for that kind of crooning. The twist on this record is that all of the songs are themed on driving and travel on “the open road.” That’s hardly a big stretch for the guy who gave us road anthems like “Memphis In The Meantime” and “Drive South,” but now he’s putting the subject matter he visits often all into a single collection of new tunes on that topic. As usual, he renders his songs with varying combinations of rock, folk, country, blues and rockabilly. He recorded this one with his road band, and Doug Lancio deserves a hat tip for some solid guitar work. So, I can already call this a good Hiatt record for now. How good, it’s a matter of how well these songs hold up after repeated listens. I suspect they’ll hold up well.

6. Gil Scott-Heron I’m New Here: Gil Scott-Heron started out at the dawn of the seventies as a jazz inclined r&b singer and street poet, a rapper years before the genre was formally invented. His Pieces Of A Man from 1971 was a great artistic triumph that went well beyond the underground proto-rap classic “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” But Scott-Heron has hit on an extended dry patch throughout most of the 90’s and 00’s, as trouble with drugs and the law sidelined him. Last month, he returned with his first record in 16 years. I’m New Here seems a little ironic title for someone who has been performing for more than forty years, but maybe that’s the right way to introduce himself to an entire generation of listeners who have come of age since his last record. In any case, this one is a winner. He takes Robert Johnson’s “Me And The Devil” into modern times, stripping the blues completely off and delivering its harrowing power using his still emotionally affecting voice, even edgier now with a deepened rasp. Right after that he does a one-eighty with the folky title song, delivered with just his voice, now softer, and an acoustic guitar. Everywhere is a clash of the old and the new in both topics and music/recitations, and the production balances the two damned effectively, keeping Scott-Heron’s singular talents at the forefront. Given the detours his life had taken in recent years, it was going on faith that he could still carry a record. It was a faith that paid off handsomely with an album where even after a long layover, Gil Scott-Heron can take a look at himself and the world around him and make something meaningful and, yes, deep.


S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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