On the one hand, thank God this album comes with a lyrics sheet. For much of Wiretap Scars, Jim Ward's vocals scour his words beyond recognition as he howls and shouts his way across some of the most compelling punk-flavored noise this side of Kill Rock Stars. On songs like "Mye" and "Rx Coup," Sparta -- spun off from one-time buzz band At The Drive In -- rocks with a precision that sounds like absolute abandon, and they craft bring-it-all-back-home hooks better than anyone since the Archers Of Loaf. This record is damn exciting, and you never know where the songs are headed, even after you've heard them all a dozen times. It's only natural to want to know what all that fuss is about.
On the other hand, even the most charitable fan of populist poetry has to admit that the lyrics are the kind of noble drivel best glimpsed in shards buried under mountains of reverb and feedback. For instance, I really love the one-two-three punch of "Light Burns Clear," but I work just as hard to ignore the chorus -- "Fan the flames in the landslide/Crown yourself in the wake/We play the disaster/Fanfare, fanfare, liar." Huh? Wha?
If you examine the words, especially ones like "faux obsolete," "arsenals," and "monovision," it seems that Sparta wants to use their rock muscle to articulate the links between love, surveillance, technological failure, and natural disaster. But like most propagandists and all but a handful of rock songwriters, Sparta's strength lies in their catchphrases rather than their prolix and convoluted doomsday scenarios. They can write 'em too: Two thorny phrases from two of the best songs on the record -- "How can you sleep at night?" and "This time, I'll get it right" -- say more about resistance and resilience than the rest of the album.
Man, you know an art form's been around a while when you start to preach incoherence. -- Addison Engelking
Viva L'American Death Ray Music
(Jeweled Red Tiger)
A no-filler 25 minutes of comeuppance to armchair whiners and the lazy cattle call of "Memphis doesn't have any good bands," A New Commotion, A Delicate Tension is exactly the type of fine-tuned document that could push these locals out of the circular constraints and figurative glass ceiling that ail all tireless and talented bands working a moderately sized city. They've toured, sure, but now, with the ammunition of a solid full-length and this arguably great EP, discerning ears everywhere should take notice of this band. This six-song EP is also the perfect medicine for both rock-and-roll's naysayers and the trend-spotters who were listening to rave music last year but are now all "rocked-out" via Spin and Rolling Stone.
The Velvet Underground is a lazy reference seemingly hemorrhaged by everyone who hears Viva L'American Death Ray Music for the first time, but their sound, and, more importantly, the sound of this EP, is informed the heaviest by early Roxy Music -- a wonderful stepping stone since, any way you slice it, Roxy Music was sexier, less constrictive, and much more fun than VU. Displaying a range only previously hinted at, A New Commotion contains at least two certifiably great rock-and-roll songs. That's two more than 99 percent of the albums by the Hives/Strokes/Vines/(insert another innocuous plural noun here). "Sycophant" catapults the best of Iggy Pop's late-'70s Berlin/Bowie into our world, and "Oh! Libertine" uses a wormy Eno keyboard to assign a menacing atmosphere to its golden swagger.
Go see this band. Buy this EP. Do what you need to do before their name changes (yet again) to a 30-word, garbled mouthful of non sequiturs or they become something that you can't walk down the street to see. -- Andrew Earles
Viva L'American Death Ray Music will be at the Young Avenue Deli Friday, October 18th, with the High Strung and the Dearest Darlings.
Youssou N'Dour & Etoile de Dakar
(World Music Network)
Before he became Peter Gabriel's aide-de-camp or Africa's biggest international pop star, Youssou N'Dour was a Senegalese cross between the young Michael Jackson and the pre-funk James Brown: an unholy charismatic, a freak-voiced teenager who intensified local rhythms until they nearly snapped apart. Paradoxically, the problem with the Rough Guide compilation of his first band, Etoile de Dakar, is that it isn't nearly as rough as it could be. The album glosses over some of the singer's most severe work (where, for instance, is the astoundingly intense "Thiely," possibly N'Dour's greatest recorded moment?) in favor of an almost folky flow.
Regardless, little about these 11 songs could be called polished. The 12-minute "Thiapathioly" from 1983 is typical, starting subdued and working itself into a lather, with coruscating tama drums hyping the beat and horns shouting more and more urgently with every reiteration. "Diokhama Say Ne Ne" moves fast from the jump, its goosed-up rhythm guitar holding the center of what sounds like a shambolic party. Loose and beautiful, it's village music on the cusp of transforming a large portion of the world. And if it leaves you hungry for more, four excellent volumes of Etoile de Dakar's work on the Stern's African Classics label remain in print. -- Michaelangelo Matos
Jim Lauderdale and
Ralph Stanley & The Clinch Mountain Boys
This is the second collaboration between Jim Lauderdale and Ralph Stanley and his fine band. The first, 1999's I Feel Like Singing, was nominated for a Grammy as best bluegrass recording of the year. This new release deserves similar kudos. Jim Lauderdale is a singer-songwriter who's been responsible for some of the more intelligent material coming out of Nashville in the last decade. In addition to penning hits for George Strait, Patty Loveless, Vince Gill, and many others, he's put out many superb albums that have gone mostly unnoticed by the public. A devotee of Gram Parsons, he's a genre-jumper par excellence, and he was creating alt-country music long before it became a hot category.
Lauderdale was raised in North Carolina as the son of a preacher, and gospel and other roots music are a constant source of inspiration for his work. One of his early loves is bluegrass, so he jumped at the chance to collaborate with one of his heroes, Ralph Stanley, whose voice Lauderdale credits with making him want to sing in the first place. Stanley is probably most known in the pop world for singing the unforgettable "O Death" on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. He's a bluegrass legend and the undisputed patriarch of the genre since the passing of Bill Monroe. A virtuoso banjo-picker, he's been playing this music for over half a century, penning classics with his late brother Carter and inspiring countless generations of musicians. To hear Stanley's nasal Virginia vocals entwined with Lauderdale's Carolina drawl is pure bluegrass bliss.
As on their previous collaboration, there's a plethora of Lauderdale-penned tunes that sound like they came straight out of the Stanley Brothers songbook, including two more collaborations with Robert Hunter (lyricist for the Grateful Dead). It's scary how authentically old and grounded these tunes sound, especially the anthem-like "Zacchaeus," with its blistering harmonies and holler-back choruses. And you couldn't ask for a more sizzling house band than the Clinch Mountain Boys, some of them fine artists in their own right. It's little wonder that country mavericks like Steve Earle and Lauderdale are paying homage to their roots by collaborating with legendary bluegrass figures like Stanley and Del McCoury or that those collaborations are respectfully traditional. Why tamper with such a good, pure thing? -- Lisa Lumb