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Photo by Cleo Sullivan

POE
Haunted (Atlantic)

Okay, it’s a concept album. And if that isn’t enough to scare you off, the concept is a dialogue between Poe and her dead father, revered lecturer and documentary filmmaker Tad Danielewski. It’s an ambitious if macabre endeavor, one that only Poe could have turned into such a brilliant and enjoyable album.

Propelled by her aggressive but seductive voice, Haunted walks the line between dark, beat-driven trip-hop and warm, melodic pop. What separates the album from its competition is Poe’s smart and emotionally charged songwriting, rife with raw energy balanced by gorgeously understated hooks. The first half of the disc is heavy on attitude. “Control” is a Garbage-style pop anthem of defiance. On “Terrible Thought,” Poe’s voice creeps under your skin as she jumps from cool, spoken-word-like observation to impassioned pleading. Catchy grooves drive “Hey Pretty” and the dark yet melodic title track, two of the album’s highlights. The irresistible “Lemon Meringue” and ballads such as “5&½ Minute Hallway” and “Spanish Doll” benefit tremendously from Poe and right-hand man Olle Romo’s mature but playful arrangements; the duo’s rich, adventurous production adds a depth to Haunted that’s not found on Poe’s 1995 Hello.

Samples of her father’s voice from old cassettes are interspersed throughout, creating a dreamy and at times eerie continuity. Those without patience for such abstractions (brief though they may be) may find Haunted tiresome. The rest of us can rejoice in its originality and thank our lucky stars that Poe had the confidence and imagination to make it.

CALL AND RESPONSE
Call and Response (Kindercore)

Call and Response has done significantly more than just jump on the bandwagon of bell-bottomed pop. This delightful S.F. quintet — boasting a trio of femme players and singers — delivers its breezy confections with relaxed and guileless conviction. Sure, the bouncy “Blowin’ Bubbles” and “Nightflight” recall the pleasant naiveté of ’60s-’70s bands like the Carpenters, but add dashes of lounge, Caucasian funk, pedal steel, cello and close, siblinglike harmonies, and you’ve got futuristic pop that doesn’t need a spoonful of sugar to go down. And if you dig past CAR’s linear-pop pedigree, the rewards grow exponentially. Even for music fans who could give a G major 7th about the mechanics of a combo, bassist Terri Loewenthal’s playing will be a source of joy. In almost every tune, she takes the reins, shaping the sound and setting the mood. She punctuates “Blowin’ Bubbles” and “I Know U Want Me,” for example, with syncopation rather than stiffly plucking the downbeats; drummer Jordan Dalrymple often plays the straight man to her animated fretwork.

The band’s fortes are simplicity and taste: the delicate picking and strumming on “Rollerskate,” squishy Moog effects on “Colors” (plus neo-psychedelic lyrics like “red, yellow and blue and green and I only see them with you”), the marimba on “Rollerskate,” and the Wurlitzer piano and backup vocals on “The Fool.” “Lightbulb” could be a soft-rock take on the Bangles; “Stars Have Eyes” sounds like a pumped-up version of New Jersey’s Speed the Plough; the wistful “California Floating in Space” will remind you of Stereolab. And if the hippie-trippy tunes aren’t proof enough of CAR’s earnestness, the liner notes even thank “all of the plants and animals.” Well, thank you. (Michael Lipton)

 

DENNIS BOVELL
I Wah Dub (LKJ Records)

Dennis Bovell was standing at a crucial crossroads in 1980, when his I Wah Dub came out. As bassist/producer with Matumbi and later as a collaborator on Linton Kwesi Johnson’s dub poetics, he was a key player in shaping early British reggae, ranking as the credentialed dread producer of choice for first-wave punk offshoots the Slits and the Pop Group. Bovell became a pioneer U.K. dubmaster behind records like this; he was almost certainly a homeboy inspiration for Mad Professor and Adrian Sherwood/On-U Sound, and in turn can be called a godfather of contemporary dub.

Back then, Lee Perry was sorta known, King Tubby wasn’t (outside the serious cognoscenti), and dub was this mysterious new thing less than a decade removed from its cost-cutting origin as B-side instrumentals on Jamaican 45s. The notion of playing sonic reducer by stripping songs down to bare essentials, then reshaping and distorting the musical skeleton, was a tantalizing entry into a whole new world of pure sound science.

The eight tunes here are rudimentary: Aswad’s Angus Gaye handles most of the drumming, and Bovell pretty much one-man-bands the rest. He doesn’t drop out the bass or drums much, keeping the rhythmic spine intact to let the tough-enough melodies to “Electrocharge” and “Oohkno” sink in. Harmonica on “Steadie,” melodica on “Blaubart” and distorted dread munchkin voices on “‘Nough” supply colors beyond the keyboard echo washes and reverb warps sailing off into the purely sonic realm. It’s deceptively understated — after 20 years of virtuoso mixology turns and hip-hop/sampler aesthetics, it may be hard to hear that some fundamental early blueprints were being drawn up here.

 

One big problem: Yeah, yeah, great music is timeless and priceless and all that, but 27 minutes for full CD price still ain’t exactly a great consumer value. Too bad I Wah Dub wasn’t piggybacked with another Bovell dub opus from the same era, like the double LP Brain Damage, which lived up to its title pretty well. (Don Snowden)

 

VARIOUS ARTISTS
The Great Race Record Labels
(Catfish)

This was a great, even inspired idea: to put together a series of compilation CDs of 1920s and ’30s blues, both urban and rural-Southern, each disc devoted to a major blues label of the period. While the resulting CDs are worthwhile (especially if you don’t own any prewar blues recordings), it’s precisely the compilers’ admirably monumental intent that makes the easily avoidable flaws so irritating. Why, for example, load down the volume devoted to Paramount — a label justly revered by blues cultists for its roster of legendary deep-Southern blues-guitar men — with so many nearly unlistenable antiques from the label’s early days as a purveyor of bland, jazzy cabaret singers up in Chicago?

All right; Paramount’s high points include Son House’s searing masterpiece “Dry Spell Blues Part One,” from 1930, with shouting vocals and bottleneck guitar playing that cut through the heavy surface noise like a knife, and the opener by ragtime guitar master Blind Blake, “Blind Arthur’s Breakdown,” whose peppy opening bars seem to promise more excitement ahead — well, ha! Moving upward, Volumes 2 and 3 are great. Columbia starts off with a blaze of glory: the underanthologized Pink Anderson’s “Every Day in the Week Blues,” a good-natured, high-energy duet of jangling guitars ’n’ banter with partner Simmie Dooley. They’re singing a typical patchwork of “floating” (borrowed) lyrics — nothing brilliant — but the bouncing guitar rhythms and high, nasal voices are entertaining as hell. Columbia’s “race” recording unit in the 1920s was based in Atlanta; lucky for us, because Atlanta blues singers, most notably Barbecue Bob Hicks, typically played exuberant 12-string guitar pieces, exemplified here by Hicks’ “Going Up the Country” and the Georgia Cotton Pickers’ bawdy “She Looks So Good” (“Makes me wanna try you, honey, ’cause you look so good”). For fun weirdness, listen to Lewis Black’s “Spanish Blues” — flurried bottleneck guitar playing, mumbled and hummed “lyrics” (“Mmmmm, mama mama mmmmm . . .”) — it’s tops!

Finally: Okeh was the first label to record blues (in 1921), so Volume 3 spans those @**!! cabaret singers, more great ’20s bluesmen, and the urbanized guitarists of the mid-1930s, such as Blind Boy Fuller. In that camp is Memphis Minnie, here singing the horny “Me and My Chauffeur Blues”: “I want him to drive me downtown.” Oh, I’ll say she does.

P.S.: Tasty packaging on all three volumes. (Tony Mostrom)

 

JAPANCAKES
The Sleepy Strange (Kindercore)

There’s an honesty and a freshness to The Sleepy Strange, the second full-length release from the Athens, GA–based Japancakes. Countrified textures shade over rock drones; rural and ambient landscapes lilt and mesmerize.

Two years ago, bandleader Eric Berg came up with a concept: Put together a six-piece group featuring cello and pedal steel, jam on basic chord patterns. What could have been a recipe for endless self-indulgence actually results in minimalistic clarity. The beautiful opener, “The Waiting,” blossoms gradually while pedal-steel flashes tug at your heartstrings — a perfect balance between cello and steel. “Vinyl Fever” is a 12-minute-plus jam with retro-future textures reminiscent of Air, but here slow disco strings cruise over slinky country-funk waves. “Disconnect the Cables” expands ever so gracefully, like a somnambulist performing ballet. “The Sleepy Strange” has a faltering, drowsy lilt. On the downside, “Vanishing Point” and some other selections are too sluggish and repetitive, crossing the line between delicate hypnotist precision and boredom.

Most of the songs are midtempo or slower, but that’s part of the charm: There’s room to breathe, crest, fall and expand. Although Japancakes often venture into cosmically drone-heavy realms, the sound remains organic, sweet and charming — like traveling in a space shuttle carved from oak. (Roger Park)

 

THE DOORS
The Bright Midnight Sampler (Bright Midnight)

Jim, as his on-a-first-name-basis acolytes always remind you, was on the edge, man. And yes, Jim Morrison did live life on the edge — on the edge of brilliance, on the edge of sanity, on the edge of sheer idiocy, on the edge of drunkenly pissing his pants. With the exception of Elvis Presley, no other major rock star has ever devolved as shockingly from electric revolutionary to bloated self-parody, and Elvis took nearly 20 years to fully make that transition; Ol’ Mojo accomplished it in less than four. But therein lies his magic: As with Elvis, another artist whose legend has endured despite an annoying posthumous cult, countless imitators and an endless deluge of shoddily repackaged material, it’s still thrilling to hear Morrison soar, and hilarious to hear him falter.

 

Nowhere is this sublime-to-ridiculous dynamic more apparent than on The Bright Midnight Sampler, a 13-track compilation culled from eight different Doors concerts recorded between July 1969 and August 1970. The first in a series of releases available from the band’s official Web site (www.thedoors.com), the collection provides some interesting insights into the dual-tightrope act that was the live Doors: Ray Manzarek, Robbie Krieger and John Densmore often fall in and out of step with each other during the course of their extended instrumental workouts, while Morrison’s level of focus seems to depend on the song in question — and, one assumes, his level of inebriation.

Case in point is the 11-minute version of “Light My Fire” from the Spectrum in Philadelphia, which opens the disc. Mojo sounds like he’d rather take a faceful of mace than sing it again, but the rest of the band is still squeezing fresh juice from their first big hit. Much better are the renditions of “Touch Me” (sounding very different without the horns and strings) and “The Crystal Ship,” performed with full-tilt intensity at Hollywood’s Aquarius Theater, and a really fucking scary version of “The End” from Detroit’s Cobo Arena. Much worse (but also much funnier) are the dullard blues of “Been Down So Long” and “Bellowing,” an appropriately named snippet of Jim delivering such shamanic benedictions as “Oooh darling, yea-ah, have a gooood time,” presumably while fiddling suggestively with his belt buckle. It’s all worth hearing, of course, but I’m probably gonna file it away and wait for the release of the full Aquarius show. Jim would have wanted it that way, man. (Dan Epstein)

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