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 I‘m gonna eat it all right now.
Sons of Otis, Songs for Worship (The Music Cartel). A truly great work of stoner art. Though Toronto’s 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. There‘s so much low end going on here that you’ll feel like you‘re 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 don’t 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 disc‘s first head-boxing riff render drugs hardly necessary. These Swedes (and a Canadian) make sure there’s 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 don‘t mean Frisco. Guitarist-bellower Tony Buhagiar and his two buddies whomp along like they know right where they’re going but don‘t care when they get there as long as they get there drunk. When Tony gets snubbed by some quarry, he’s proudly philosophical: ”Can‘t 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 Zant‘s brother in it? You know that Xmas album you’ve been clamoring for them to make? Couldn‘t sleep till it came out? Well, it’s here.
Prime Cuts: The Alice Cooper Story (Sanctuary DVD). He wouldn‘t be alive if he’d 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. Can‘t 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 he’d 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 it‘s 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 year‘s 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 Society’s 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 Sabbath‘s ”Snowblind“ and Neil Young’s ”Heart of Gold“ (!). And it‘s even heavier. He’s a singer, too, y‘know.
Derek Sherinian, Inertia (www.dereksherinian.com). Whatever you think of Toto, you can’t 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. He‘s quite the chopsman himself, but here he’s mostly interested in showcasing his fusiony compositions (plus creditable covers of Edgar Winter‘s ”Frankenstein“ and Mingus’ ”Goodbye Porkpie Hat“), and in providing atmosphere and bold reharmonizations — not that he doesn‘t 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, it’s not clear whether they‘re 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 Gardenia‘s program of standards drifts through the previous generation’s vision of urban elegance with the sure knowledge that it‘s 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. That‘s 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. Parker’s 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. Must’ve been a blast.
Micro-East Collective, Fabric (Umbrella). Now that they‘ve put out a bunch of great CDs, nobody can suspect that North Carolina’s 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 won‘t 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 1997’s ambitious tour-guide-de-force Kingdom of Champa with a collection of balanced mobiles, looking at the USA‘s disjointedly swingin’ landscape in a way that shows how exotic we must look to outside observers.
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 Halley’s 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 can‘t 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 York’s 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.