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Out of the Woods

LOREN MAZZACANE CONNORS & DARIN GRAY The Lost Mariner (Family Vineyard) LOREN MAZZACANE CONNORS & DARIN GRAY The Lost Mariner (Family Vineyard)

Loren Mazzacane Connors has always had collaborators. Even in the ’80s, when his self-released limited-edition records appeared in white cardboard sleeves with photographs pasted to them, he frequently worked with vocalist Suzanne Langille, and the last decade has seen him perform with new-music iconoclasts like Keiji Haino and Alan Licht. The four-disc Unaccompanied Acoustic Guitar Improvisations was remastered by post-rock luminary Jim O’Rourke and produced for reissue by Thurston Moore, among others, as a 50th-birthday present to Connors, and the recent The Lost Mariner pairs him with Darin Gray, yet another Chicago post-rock veteran. Yet the work of this singular and profoundly ruminative guitarist has always seemed solitary. Connors’ music is about people — the poor in Hell’s Kitchen, the painter Mark Rothko, ghosts in a haunted house — but there are no people in it.

The Acoustic box’s 90-plus solo improvisations, grouped into nine long clumps that run as long as 37 minutes, are grating, repetitive and unpleasant, marked by Connors’ trademark note bending and meditative silences but lacking the dissolving fragments of melody that give his best work its brooding, earthy intensity. In addition, Connors grunts and squeals as he plays, providing Keith Jarrett–style distraction without the balm of tunefulness or developing harmonic tension. For fans, the pieces will remain intermittently fascinating — a completely personalized Czerny-style primer for an emerging new-music master — but they don’t sustain or reward focused listening. Connors’ booklet-length accompanying essay, though, which recalls his days creating these recordings in a dreary New Haven neighborhood wracked by a specifically New England sort of creeping desperation, is nearly worth the price of purchase. As Connors himself notes, “My music didn’t have much of a sense of mystery then.”

The Lost Mariner, on the other hand, is all mystery. From the bell-like chimes of guitar that open the disc to the massing midnight storm of feedback-wash and subtle discordance that builds during the final fragments, Connors and partner Darin Gray create an open, rolling, horizonless space. Bits of old blues-based tunes float, flotsamlike, on the surface. Every now and then Gray will knock a steady, slow bass part against Connors’ leaking hull of lashed-together chords, or Connors himself will unleash a sea gull’s cry of weeping guitar, but nothing disrupts the sea of sound. As always, the mariner himself is long gone, and the suite isn’t for him. The operative word in the title is “lost.”

HOBEX Back in the ’90s (WEA/Sire)

Another group of Caucasians inspired by “soul, R&B and funk” is not exactly what the world needs. Yet while it’s true that North Carolina’s Hobex has tapped the heart of ’70s Memphis soul, it has done so with a sense of adventure rather than mimicry or mere reverence. Writing and arranging songs like he’s the godchild of Al Green and Alex Chilton, singer-songwriter/guitarist Greg Humphrey (who, along with Hobex bassist Andy Ware, headed up the tuneful, jangly Dillon Fence) has happened on a sound that, from the first note, crackles with freshness and inspiration.

“Groove, Baby” takes off with a loping groove, subtle Hammond textures and a choppy rhythm guitar, but it’s Humphrey’s rich melody lines and cooing falsetto that turn the trick. On the solo, he translates that sense of melody directly to his clean, reverbless guitar style. “The Love That’s Inside” takes its cues from the Isley Brothers’ classic “Who’s That Lady” as well as the forgotten Stories hit “Brother Louie.” The feel-good groove of “Windows” (featured in the movie Rounders) is a natural drivin’-in-your-car single, and when they launch into exuberant ’70s-rock twin leads, you’ll forget it’s been done a hundred times before.

In short, Humphrey uses all the old tricks like a pro: killer horn charts throughout, a funky vocal EQ and wah-wah guitar on “I Was Wrong,” a mutated “Suzy Q” riff on the swampy “My Moonshine” and rich, sophisticated harmonies on “Solaar.” Most musicians quickly figure out how to “borrow” from the masters, but only a few are talented enough to listen and learn a thing or two. (Michael Lipton)

JOE CLAUSSELL Language (Ibadan)

There’re two ways to get an understanding of Joe Claussell’s music: You can hop on a plane to NYC and head straight to Claussell’s world-renowned “Body and Soul” Sunday-afternoon tea dance, or you can get his latest disc, Language. Going the more practical route, Language is a smarter bet.

Now, before you start picturing electronic wizardry, laser shows and hands wavin’ in the air, think again, folks, ’cause this ain’t that kind of party. There’s no techno trickery here, no hammering drum machine. Bearing the flowing essence of Afro-house music, jazz and world beats, Language takes you on a chill-out journey of deeply soulful and jazzy ambiance. If the music had a physical manifestation, it would possess full, negroid lips; dark-chocolate skin; a long, slender neck; high, regal cheekbones; a severe buzz cut; and a sinewy body with legs that’d go on forever. It would be female, and it would speak only the language of body. It would sweat, twitch, hump, rock and thrust its slippery cocoa hips high to the heavens. Above all, it would be an ever-faithful slave to The Rhythm.

 

Right, it’d be the spitting image of Grace Jones. Or better yet, how about Africa, the motherland? The conga-rich “Spiritual Insurrection” starts things off, winding through a rhythmic maze of subtle bass lines and titillating keyboard arrangements, with the flute taking over the lead on the following “Git Wah.” On “Kryptic Elements,” violin meets flute and conga drum, all caressing each other in a melodious ménage à trois of freeform bliss. Besides one lone vocal track, “Je Ka Jo,” the rest of the seven cuts are pure instrumental bliss. Other highlights include “Gbedu 1 — Gbedu Resurrection” and the groovy licks of “Mateen’s Theme.”

Executive-produced by Afro-house-music legend Jerome Sydenham and Claussell, Language is one of several albums over the years that have emerged out of the “Body and Soul” Sunday affair. Claussell’s partners Francois Kevorkian and Danny Krivet have both released their own series of albums celebrating Afro-house rhythms, but for the initiated, Language speaks volumes. (Derrick Mathis)

 

THE TRENIERS Best of the Treniers Vol. I (www.thetreniers.com)

The Treniers, America’s first family of rhythm & blues, have been romping and roaring, nonstop, since the mid-1940s. Their high-voltage, harmony-shout jump blues, tempered with ballads, pop standards and novelties, has made them a staple in Las Vegas lounges since 1949 (though of late they’re working more often in Atlantic City). Even while mixing in lounge nuggets like “Hava Nagilah” and Broadway show tunes, the Treniers are one of the few R&B acts to successfully maintain their own pure sound, demonstrating a capability for commercial survival on their own artistic terms that is, compared to most of their colleagues’ flamed-out careers, nothing less than extraordinary.

This outrageously fabulous collection, from the vaults of nephew Harold “Slick” Trenier, showcases the band’s limitless capability and singular R&B-pop flair. The cassette-only release offers a kaleidoscopic variety of musical styles from a variety of sources, including live television appearances, indie 45s and self-produced recordings made for sale at personal appearances, and Slick has done an ace job cleaning up the varying degrees of tape hiss and surface noise these tunes survived with.

The Treniers have always tailored material specifically for themselves, as with their adaptation of King of Swing Jimmie Lunceford’s “Rhythm Is Our Business,” which became the group’s theme and perennial show intro, “Rocking Is Our Business.” The tape opens with a joyously savage live version and segues into a wild, stripped-down folk-jive cover of the old-timey hillbilly standard “I Gotta Travel On.” There’s a great big-band-pop take on still-in-the-book favorite “Outta the Bushes”; another country song, “When Your Hair Has Turned to Silver,” given an Eddy-Arnold-meets-the-Ink-Spots treatment; and the bluesy menace of “Cheatin’ on Me,” where stalwart saxophonist Don Hill reigns supreme. Masters of a very old-school comedic misogyny, they outrage with “Bust Her in the Mouth,” and novelties like the bizarre “Gonna Catch Me a Rat” and “Flapjack Moon” delight. With 21 songs featured, there are out-of-control early-’70s funk workouts, swoon-assured ballads, flat-git-rockers and more. Available only through Slick’s thetreniers.com site, at a mellow 10 bucks a throw, this is an absolute must-have. (Jonny Whiteside)

 

PAPAS FRITAS Buildings and Grounds (Minty Fresh)

Papas Fritas was named after an inside joke from Spanish class. Now the three kids from Tufts U., guitarist Tony Goddess, bassist Keith Gendel and drummer Shivika Asthana, claim they’re growing up. Yet while there’s no doubt they’ve matured, they still worship at the altar of three-minute pop, which may no longer be time enough for all they’d like to accomplish. 1997’s Helioself was filled with autobiographical band shenanigans and hyped-up mod trip-outs about small rooms. It also left Goddess in a hard place; grappling with maturity and the reality of record sales, he’s decided to iron out the wrinkles in his arrangements and opt for a seamless, heartfelt sound on Buildings and Grounds.

One could argue that Goddess has tried a bit too hard, since much of Buildings sounds like cutting-room scraps from a 1976 Fleetwood Mac session. If the warmth of the record is in question, there’s no denying Las Fritas have succeeded, but at the price of sounding overly familiar. On the other hand, handclaps and chiming vocal backgrounds à la Manfred Mann and the Turtles will never go out of style. The voices of Asthana, shy like the girl in your brother’s garage band, and Goddess, who drags his vowels through the gravel any chance he gets, keep Buildings from making an overproduced mess of itself. Goddess, a graduate of the Brian Wilson school of pop orchestration and harmony, slips his hooky guitar solos in your ear with ease, but he tends to hang out there too long, as is the case on the jangly ode to a poseur, “Questions,” and on “What Am I Supposed To Do?,” a please-be-mine infatuation song.

 

It also sounds like Papas Fritas have taken some pointers from labelmates the Cardigans with the superpolished swing-and-sway-by-the-poolside vibe of “Far From an Answer,” not to mention some awfully easy rhymes that will never change your life. But be careful, because the “Maybe I will and maybe I won’t/Maybe I do and maybe I don’t” fade-out on “Lost in a Dream” just might hypnotize you into listening again and again. God knows there’s no substitute for an expertly produced, peppy pick-me-up at the end of the day — i.e., a good pop album. (Wendy Gilmartin)

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