Back in the early ’90s, Morrissey became a mysterious icon of gloom, but there was more to it than that. Backed by guitar pop that swung from glam rock to rockabilly, and background atmospherics like thunder claps and ocean waves, his music could lift you away to the streets of gloomy London, where it’s OK to be down.
Now, seven years after his last disappointing CD of new material, Morrissey is — gasp — happy. So what do we do with this middle-aged, sunny-California Morrissey? He’s not the waifish stud he used to be. And considering his solo albums were already a lesser version of the Smiths, his second phase of solo material is now three generations removed from the genius that made him. But that aside, his voice sounds great and there are some nice moments on “Quarry.”
He still finds things to whine about — America, English politics, crashing bores and lazy dykes — and does it with his signature wit. But the band lacks innovation or edge and the result is a softer, smoother product. “Quarry” sounds like it would be at home on a “cool and contemporary” radio station, rather than an alt-rock one. For fans that want to grow old with Morrissey this is the way to do it, but if you’d rather listen to his best, pick up “Your Arsenal,” or go back to the Smiths. **1/2 — C.N.
Mission of Burma “ONoffON” (Matador)
The Pixies, Pavement, Dinosaur Jr. — you hear Mission of Burma’s influence in virtually every alternative/indie rock band that came along after the seminal Boston quartet disbanded in 1983.
After 22 years of inactivity, the avant-rockers have miraculously resurfaced with their trademark Stooges-meets-Sun Ra sound and clipped, buzz saw energy. Over the course of 16 tracks, the group executes its unique combination of noise and harmony as if the first time never ended.
From the opening, “The Setup,” agitated guitar blasts provided by the criminally under-appreciated Roger Miller give songs their distinct angularity. Songs such as “Hurt Again,” “What We Really Are” and “Dirt” are defined by his satisfying amalgamation of tightly coiled chords and tonal abstractions. Bassist Clint Conley and drummer Peter Prescott provide the punchy root, supplying harsh syncopation and raw melodic structure in the group’s eternal push and pull between control and freedom.
The only original member not present in this reincarnation is electronic sound generator Martin Swope, but his raw tape manipulations are matched by Bob Weston of Shellac, who supplies a subtle clatter of machines overtop the rock music for alluring effect. Two decades on, the band is still ahead of the game. **** — Chris Bopst
Dykehouse “Midrange” (Ghostly)
The music industry is trawling through the ’80s, tossing up acts that cause déja vu. Liked the synth-pop of Human League and New Order? Say hello to the Faint. Post-punk? Try Interpol.
Even the most obscure parts of pop history were bound to reappear. Take the genre of shoegazer, an amped-up and distortion-buzzed version of Phil Spector’s richly melodic wall of sound that made appearances in several forms throughout the ’80s and early ’90s.
Enter Mike Dykehouse, a former IDM (intelligent dance music) producer who just released “Midrange,” a 180-degree turnaround after two releases of underground electronica. The droning, fuzzy, overdriven intensity of the Jesus and Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive are Dykehouse’s new muses, and their influence (as well as that of many others) show up all over this amazingly good album.
“Midrange” is impressive, an album of intense melodies and clever lyrics. The sound is not unique: Think an album’s worth of Air’s “Cherry Blossom Girl” with more electric guitar. Dykehouse isn’t quite as innovative, but the music on “Midrange” remains fresh while referencing the past. A must-have, at least for fans of moody rock music. ****1/2 — Wayne Melton
Césaria évora “Club Sodade: Césaria évora by ...” (RCA)
On “Club Sodade,” the lovely, mournful, multicultural recordings of Cape Verdean singer Césaria évora get an electronica makeover for the dance floor. Other recent beneficiaries of such remixing, including Charlie Parker and Astor Piazzolla, have seemed a bit uncomfortable in their glossy beatbox cages. But the polyglot nature of Evora’s blend of European, African and Latin music is more naturally accommodating. This album is one of the best of the postmodern bunch.
Similar Verve and Blue Note remix albums have topped off their deconstructions and reconstructions with second-string raps that reek of commercial calculation. Here, the focus remains on Evora’s distinctive vocals. It also helps that the mix artists are an eclectic bunch of all-stars, including Detroit auteur Carl Craig and French-born Francois K. The usual dance beat strategies are employed, with some intriguing variations provided by Se¤or Coconut’s bizarre “Besame Mucho” and Pepe Braddock’s dub extrapolations on one of three versions of “Angola.”
Five of the 12 cuts, including the oft-repeated “Angola,” come from Evora’s breakthrough recording “Miss Perfumado” (1992). “Club Sodade” may serve as a gateway recording to that liltingly superior original. “Miss Perfumado” is better in every respect but one: It’s harder to dance to. *** — Peter McElhinney
Jon Langford “All the Fame of Lofty Deeds” (Bloodshot)
As a founding member of second-wave punk heroes the Mekons and lead singer of the Waco Brothers, Jon Langford has an established solo following as a reborn alt-country artist, and no doubt this second official album will find an audience. But I won’t be among the masses.
“Lofty Deeds” has to be one of the lamest concept albums I have ever heard. Maybe I’m missing something, but these 11 songs that chronicle the rise and fall of the imaginary 1950s country legend Lofty Deeds go nowhere. Fortunately, they go nowhere in a hurry. Rousing dobro playing and plenty of hard-driving rhythms keep it all moving. Honky-tonk piano and in-your-face acoustic guitar fuel the engine with spirit. Langford sings with spit and snarl.
On a sonic level, there’s nothing wrong with this thing, but the songs don’t elicit much. “Hard Times” is a straightforward tune that expresses plenty of wrongheaded conviction. The two covers — Procol Harum’s “Homburg” and Bob Wills’ “Trouble in Mind” — are OK. But Langford also chooses to lift the melodies of standards such as “Rose of San Antone,” “Rocky Top” and “Bo Diddley” for three original songs and that seems questionable.
As for the story, Langford — or Lofty — decides to identify with Sputnik and the Space Age and blast his fledgling country career off like a rocket. He starts to pop pills and chase women. He discovers he’s living a lie, finds he’s going over a cliff and before we know it, this fabulous but ultimately unsatisfying saga ends. ** — Ames Arnold
Richard White “A Firefly’s Dream” (self produced)
This mostly solo guitar, mostly instrumental album is anchored in the New Age genre by local computer programmer Richard White, who composed all the tracks and handles all guitar duties.
The sound, recorded by Bill McElroy and produced by George Maida, is pristine, on a par with any national New Age act. White plays the guitar fluently and precisely, hitting harmonics at will. He varies the dynamics in a gentle flow, transitioning from delicately sketched notes to thick strumming to fleet fingered picking in a very organic manner. One can’t help but think of guitarist Michael Hedges in listening to White, and he acknowledges Hedges as an inspiration.
Strong cuts include “The Deep Gloaming” and “The Wisdom of Butter,” which features some nice vocals by Jackie Frost and an effective use of echo. “Casa Rio” very successfully expands things to feature fiddles.
All in all, a fine record, expertly played and recorded, though it occasionally suffers from indistinct and repetitive figures and rhythms. One thought: Michael Hedges had good success interpreting others’ music. I’d like to see what White can offer as an interpretive player — he’s certainly got the chops to pull it off. *** — Andy Garrigue
Louis Ledford “Reverie” (LBL)
If Richmonder Louis Ledford never writes another song other than “Lonesome Road Nobody Knows,” he could consider his job forever well done. But “Lonesome Road” is only one of nine finely crafted songs on the acoustic country picker’s new “Reverie,” co-produced by Cracker guitarist Bob Rupe.
Ledford has the ability to examine both hard truths and dreams of wistful recollection with a tough and tender humanity. His songs speak volumes with a lyrical precision that dime-a-dozen songwriters lack. Sung in an easy-chair drawl, these snapshots of soldiers at war and lovers in love capture life’s tragedies and triumphs without sentimentality or a heavy hand. Characters suffer empty rooms on lonesome nights, grieve in the face of horror and grapple with deceptively simple truths. Ledford sings, “If things stay like this/things have gotta change.”
Backed by acoustic guitars, mandolin, bass, pedal steel and harmonica, Ledford’s sturdy songwriting style puts minor chords in all the right places as he brings his lyrical landscapes to life. These songs are gems of reflection that quietly examine our daily struggle with what it means to live in this terrible and wonderful world. ****1/2 — A.A.
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