Sons of Otis
Listening is like fishing. Most music never comes near your hook. Some of it nibbles and swims away. Some of what you land you throw back. Sometimes you fall in the water and it swallows you up.
The following is music that I reeled in over the course of the year and stuck in the freezer. I thawed it out and deep-fried it, and Im gonna eat it all right now.
Sons of Otis, Songs for Worship (The Music Cartel). A truly great work of stoner art. Though Torontos Sons of Otis were named for a character in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, not the drunk on The Andy Griffith Show, both cultural references are apropos. Theres so much low end going on here that youll feel like youre crawling through a roadside ditch after a cloudburst. The riffs are slow and lack all taint of wit. And the singer stays where he belongs, moaning incomprehensibly at the other end of a culvert. Hint: Songs for Worship sounds better and better the louder you play it. But dont worry about your ears, which sustain more damage from higher frequencies. Worry about your pants.
Roachpowder, Atomic Church (The Music Cartel). The squealing, skidding slide guitars that expand into this discs first head-boxing riff render drugs hardly necessary. These Swedes (and a Canadian) make sure theres enough fuzz, wah, cowbells and cymbal backwash to go around, layering around 60 guitars on every song while singer Francisco Rencoret bawls about stuff like the Balls of the Sun. A headache that really lasts.
Canyon Creep, Hijack the World (www.canyoncreep.com). They got some damn good hard-rock bands up there in the Bay Area, and I dont mean Frisco. Guitarist-bellower Tony Buhagiar and his two buddies whomp along like they know right where theyre going but dont care when they get there as long as they get there drunk. When Tony gets snubbed by some quarry, hes proudly philosophical: Cant afford you anyway! I nominate the James Gang--meets--ZZ Top progression in Black Bra for Riff of the Year.
38 Special, A Wild-Eyed Christmas (CMC International). You remember that 70s Southern-rock band 38 Special, the one with Ronnie Van Zants brother in it? You know that Xmas album youve been clamoring for them to make? Couldnt sleep till it came out? Well, its here.
Prime Cuts: The Alice Cooper Story (Sanctuary DVD). He wouldnt be alive if hed stayed there, but Prime Cuts, a greatly expanded two-disc version of an earlier VHS release, is a hell of a reminder of how close to the edge Uncle Alice staggered 30 years ago. Cant blame him for the way he gets his jollies now: packaging his interviews and clips (thanks for loading them in favor of the great original band he formed with his Arizona track-team pals) in a ridiculous video-board-game format that hed never have been able to figure out in his previous marinated state. Wide-screen! Surround-sound! (Why?!)
Symphony X, Live on the Edge of Forever (Inside Out Music America). Hardly anybody exceeds this excessively anymore. A double CD of thundering, twiddling, keyboard-laden grandiosity, with soap-operatic vocals that make you want to eat a box of liqueur-filled chocolates with Joe Lynn Turner, this is music that could only come from Europe or New Jersey -- and its from both! (Recorded in the Old Country by guys from west o the Hudson.) Live may not have the string sections or Latin mottoes of last years V: The Mythology Suite studio release, but these crusaders demonstrate that once you learn how to rhyme ages and sages, you never forget. Aah-AAAAAHH!!!!
Black Label Society, Alcohol Fueled Brewtality Live!! Plus 5 (Spitfire). A private Gulp Poll has determined that 100 percent of two Americans name Zakk Wylde as the most improved electric guitarist of the last decade. Disc 1 documents his Black Label Societys sonically (and, for Zakk, psychologically) punishing Penchant for Violence Tour 2000, and any song from it contains more heaviness than 20 Limp Bizkit albums. Disc 2 offers five songs featuring acoustic guitar and acoustic piano, including Black Sabbaths Snowblind and Neil Youngs Heart of Gold (!). And its even heavier. Hes a singer, too, yknow.
Derek Sherinian, Inertia (www.dereksherinian.com). Whatever you think of Toto, you cant deny that drummer Simon Phillips and guitarist Steve Lukather can play. Guys like that love to freak out when they get the chance, which is where keyboardist Sherinian (Dream Theater, Planet X) comes in. Hes quite the chopsman himself, but here hes mostly interested in showcasing his fusiony compositions (plus creditable covers of Edgar Winters Frankenstein and Mingus Goodbye Porkpie Hat), and in providing atmosphere and bold reharmonizations -- not that he doesnt lean on his pitch-bending wheel and wail when he wants to simulate a load of blow up the left nostril. This album rocks out the most, of course, on the three tracks that feature the aforementioned Mr. Wylde. Notice how this review provides a subtle bridge to Jazz?
Chris Botti, Night Sessions (Columbia). Imagewise, its not clear whether theyre aiming this gorgioso young trumpeter at gay men or gay women, but close your eyes and Night Sessions serves as babycoo for urban white hets, too. The textural gushes and wheedles qualify on their own as art, and Botti possesses one of the nicer slow vibratos around. Not forgetting that this label marketed Miles Davis as make-out music for years.
Etta James, Blue Gardenia (Private Music). Nobody has a firmer grasp on pure music than Etta James. Arranged by Cedar Walton, with accompaniment by L.A.s best (Red Holloway, Tony Dumas, Ralph Penland et al.), Blue Gardenias program of standards drifts through the previous generations vision of urban elegance with the sure knowledge that its classic. Young singers: Notice how, on songs like These Foolish Things and Cry Me a River, James R&B moans, melismas and inflections personalize her stories rather than demonstrate how many bowling pins she can juggle. Thats how you stay in business for 50 years. (Or 70 -- her mom, Dorothy Leatherwood, works magic on the title tune.)
William Parker & Hamid Drake, Piercing the Veil (Aum Fidelity). Two mofos, one groove. Parkers known for his avant variability and soul on upright bass, but he can also lock into killer beats -- on bass, wooden flute, double reeds or a pile o perc. Chicago drummer Drake could make anybody sound good; here he just relaxed and jammed. Mustve been a blast.
Micro-East Collective, Fabric (Umbrella). Now that theyve put out a bunch of great CDs, nobody can suspect that North Carolinas Micro-East Collective are a fluke. Their original methods of group composing and improvising allow sensual, organic music to emerge from three or 20 players at a time -- and it wont let you turn it off. Scary stuff, subverting expectations while leaving you afloat in the Sargasso. Produced by Chris Stamey and Ian Davis.
Michael Blake, Drift (Intuition). There are always good improvisers around; composers and arrangers with personal visions are a lot rarer. Saxist Blake follows up 1997s ambitious tour-guide-de-force Kingdom of Champa with a collection of balanced mobiles, looking at the USAs disjointedly swingin landscape in a way that shows how exotic we must look to outside observers.
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Rich Halley, Coyotes in the City (Louie). Not just a good improviser, Portland saxist Halley has been doing it long enough that you can pick any six consecutive notes he plays and make a memorable tune out of em. Bassist Clyde Reed and drummer Dave Storrs provide a flexible mesh, sort of a hemp hammock supporting Halleys physical manifestations and leaving space above for his dreams.
The Brad Mehldau Trio, Progression (Warner Bros.). Mehldau rides his piano through two live discs of mostly standards, sounding comfortable, happy and deeply thoughtful. If that seems like a contradiction, he suggests in his booklet notes that you cant make art this good without one.
Sensational, Get on My Page (Ipecac). Old fucks like me love hip-hop grooves and studio twists, but doze on brag-raps. New Yorks Sensational, sucking hard on a bomber, mushes, mumbles and mutates his voice down into a bass-soaked sewer of gunk where it conveys attitude without dismissible chunkheadedness. Pass that thing over here.