Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Joseph Arthur's awesome new album

I discovered that JOSEPH ARTHUR had released a new album, Redemption City, available from his website,, as free/donate as much as you wish download. (For the record, I paid $12 - don't forget that even starving-artist types need to eat!) It's a brave move on Joseph's part because it's not as if he's ever been a big-selling artist. Indeed, I've no idea how he pays the rent in Brooklyn other than stay out on the road on endless tour (which kind of defeats the point of paying rent in the first place). The fact that Redemption City is available as the option of a free download may tempt some people into thinking that the album is a throwaway or not worthy of a formal release. They'd be sorely mistaken....

Some background on Joseph. I first discovered Arthur in 2000 when he released his second album, Come to Where I'm From on the Real World label. Indeed, the Akron, Ohio, native was the only American recording artist signed to the world music label and that was at the personal behest of its founder, Peter Gabriel, who was so knocked out by Joseph Arthur's demos that he personally called him one day to sign him. (Joseph initially thought the call was a prank.) Come to Where I'm From, which was produced by T Bone Burnett before he became such a famous producer, isn't the most easy access point to Joseph's ouevre. It's often stubborn on the ears and quite bleak in outlook but the album has so much depth that it rewards those willing to venture out from the shallows. It boasts a number of very accessible songs, too, such as the "Chemical," a Beck-like rocker, "History," a hooky number with a staggering chorus that seems caught in a feedback loop, and "In the Sun," an acoustic mini anthem that has since been covered by Peter Gabriel, Chris Martin and Michael Stipe. But the song that absolutely floored me was "Invisible Hands," one of the most harrowing songs I've ever heard - and I mean that as a compliment. It's a song built on echoes and shadows in which Joseph sings on the edge of despair and, eventually, tips over it.

That year, I interviewed Joseph over the phone and it sounded as if I had woken him up. It was 3 o'clock in the afternoon. My friend David Browne, then head music critic over at Entertainment Weekly, rated Come to Where I'm From the best album of 2000. The followup album, Redemption's Son, was tremendous, too, if perhaps overly long. (Here's my review of it.) It spawned a minor hit in the form of  the lovely long song "Honey and the Moon" but, for starters, you really have to hear the title track.

By then, I was snapping up all of Joseph's releases (including his rare EPs and the UK version of Redemption's Son, which has several different songs) and I'd practically collar strangers at record stores and tell them they needed to check out America's great unheralded songwriter.

Alas, the masses had still yet to catch on. The first time I saw Joseph Arthur perform, which was at the Paradise club in Boston, was a show I'll never forget. The room was, at best, half full but Joseph used looping technology to record sounds and riffs and vocals to create an epic, yet highly intimate, sound. I was astonished at his creativity in using those loops to create such a textured sound. (When he abandoned his looping technology to just perform with an acoustic guitar on later tours, he was still good but those shows weren't nearly as good.) A painter with a predilection for painting ghastly skulls-like heads frozen in Edvard Munch-like screams (they're on his album covers), Joseph also occasionally painted while he sang on stage. Bet you've never seen anyone do that, have ya? When he sang "Invisible Hands" as a personal exorcism, he painted a vast canvas with one hand while holding the microphone with the other. Mesmerizing.

In 2004, Joseph Arthur released his masterpiece: Our Shadows Will Remain. It should have made him massive. Q magazine even ran a 4 star review that praised it as his potential breakthrough record. With its varied color palette of sounds and moods, and so many hooky songs, it was a stunning piece of work. The song "The Smile that Explodes" may not have the best of song titles but, trust me, it's great. Newly sober, Joseph quickly followed it up with another fine album, Nuclear Daydream.

Soon after, Joseph tired of creating auteur records and formed a band called The Lonely Astronauts which featured a drummer named G Whiz (really!) and a bassist in the form of a former super model (really!) Though their live shows were entertaining, I felt that the two studio albums were too loose and scrappy even though they each included one or two great songs. From there, I feel as if Joseph Arthur got a bad case of Ryan Adamitis - he started releasing vast amounts of material,often as individual songs on his website, without much self-editing. A succession of four EPs included a handful of wowzer moments (including long-awaited studio versions of old live numbers such as "She Paints Me Gold") but, to my ears, the quality control seemed to have slipped. I enjoyed his 2011 release, Graduation Ceremony, as well as his supergroup with Ben Harper and Dani Harrison, called Fistful of Mercy, and still enjoyed Joseph's shows yet I must admit that my interest in Joseph had waned. The early ardor was no longer there.

Until now.

Joseph's new album, Redemption City, has been three years in the making. This is no throwaway. It's hands-down his best album since Nuclear Daydream and it has an energy and vitality that comes from creating an album with your back to the wall. These are Joseph's strongest melodies in years. You'll want to hear the knock-out one-two punch of "Travel as Equals" and "Wasted Days" that open the album.

On this record, Joseph deploys his half-rap style of singing more than usual but also switches into his irresistible honeyed falsetto croon during the choruses. The dreamy album centerpiece, "I Miss the Zoo," crests with pretty guitar figure and major chords but it's Arthur's deadpan delivery that gives the song affecting pathos.

What's surprising about Redemption City is how danceable it often is. "No Surrender Comes from Free" mixes a stoner vibe with huge beats. There's an urban grit to the lyrics and grimy instrumentation that befits the album's title and theme. It's a very New York City record. By the time I got around to track 11, "You're not the Only One," I was just thrilled to hear Joseph Arthur create something this good. Oh, it's not a perfect record. At times one wishes that Redemption City had the diversity of moods and sounds that characterized Our Shadows Will Remain but, nevertheless, this is fine stuff.

It's a double album, by the way, and the second part consists of orphaned songs left on the cutting room floor. As Joseph explains on his website, you can choose to download just the main album or the double album. He wisely advises that listeners spend time with disc 1 before migrating to disc 2. I haven't even gotten to disc 2 yet as I am still enjoying the main course. I imagine the dessert will be quite special, too.

So, visit and tuck in. And if you like it, do donate a couple of bucks. Joseph Arthur may believe should art should be free, but it does cost him money!

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Playlist: February

Albums currently in rotation:
  • School of Seven Bells—Ghostory (2012)
  • Van Halen—A Different Kind of Truth (2012)
  • Air—Le Voyage Dans La Lune (2012)
  • Otis Taylor—Contraband (2012)
  • PJ Harvey & John Parish—A Man, A Woman Walked By (2009)
  • Marillion—Fugazi (1984)
  • Talk Talk—Natural History (1990), Asides Besides (1998)
  • Field Music—Plumb (2012)
  • Shearwater—Animal Joy (2012) 
  • Steve Hogarth + Richard Barbieri—Not the Weapon But the Hand (2012) 
  • Butterfly Boucher—BB (2012) 
  • Gary Clark Jr.—Night Lights EP (2011) 
  • No-Man—Love and Endings (2012)  
  • Slow Electric—Slow Electric (2011)  
  • Memories of Machines—Warm Winter (2011)  
  • Joseph Arthur—Redemption City (2012)
  • Sharon Van Etten—Tramp (2012)  
This month, whenever I open my portable CD case to choose one my latest albums, I feel as if I'm standing at the ice-cream counter at Baskin-Robbins. This year, the month of February offered up an uncommonly great wealth of new music with a bounty of great choices for my ears to choose from.

In January's playlist, I praised the latest album by SHEARWATER, which may just be the best album of 2012. Don't miss out on the incredible Animal Joy record, released mid February. I recently interviewed Shearwater's Jonathan Meiburg for Under the Radar magazine, so keep an eye out for that. Here's the lead single's music video, which ends in a diabolically twisted twist.

The album that's really knocking me out at the moment is the new record by bluesman OTIS TAYLOR. It's called Contraband and it's stunning.

Colorado-based Otis Taylor is the most unconventional, and musically diverse, bluesman since Taj Mahal. For starters, his favorite instrument is the banjo. His ouevre, which he calls "trance blues," combines strong elements of jazz, rock, and African instrumentation. But it's Otis's voice that most entrances. It's a gruff yet soulful instrument with unique call-and-response phrasing that oscillates from ebb to riptide.

A thoughtful lyricist, Taylor is more interested in writing songs about green cards tragedies, men on the run from the Klu Klux Klan, and interacial love between children than the usual cliched blues songs about about cheating women, etc. Otis' new album, Contraband, takes its title from an article that appeared in the May/June 2011 issue of Preservation magazine about runaway slaves who escaped to the Union lines at Fort Monroe, Va., during the civil war and were known as “contraband.” The slaves found themselves living in camps under conditions worse than life on the plantation.

Taylor defies the stereotypical bluesman in many other ways. He doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, and has been married for over two decades. But, as he freely admits, he comes from an "avant-garde" family. Over the course of successive albums, the mixed-race musician has written songs about the lynching of his great grandfather, the gun-shot murder of his uncle, his mother’s drug bust for selling heroin and how “other woman” in his parent's marriage turned out to be his mother's lesbian lover.

Though Contraband includes many of the bluesman's regular collaborators—daughter Cassie on bass and backing vocals, Ron Miles on cornet—the music is more robust and vibrant than ever before. There's some gritty electric guitar soloing from Jon Paul Johnson, too, on several songs. One new element this time around is a choir of backing vocals on hooky songs such as "Devil's Gonna Lie" and "Banjo Boogie Blues." I would almost describe the choir as sounding like gospel singers except that the massed vocals sound earthier and secular rather saintly and church-like.

Taylor recorded his new album under dire circumstances. Prior to major back surgery for a softball-sized cyst connected to his liver and his spine, he spent says recording seven songs "just in case" even though he was in major pain. Result: even more intense performances than usual. "Lay on My Delta Bed" starts as a slow burn piece, Otis's voice circling the loops of a recurring banjo riff, and then, near the end suddenly becomes an inferno as his voice catches fire. Also great: "Open These Bars," an account of a black man lynched for looking at a white woman, is built on sparse licks of electric guitar, Otis's voice haunting its open spaces.

My favorite track on Contraband is called "Look to the Side." It's a deceptively simple song, just a banjo progression, light drums and a sympatico bassline.  But then Otis sings, "If I Follow the Earth, will it take me home?/If I follow the ocean, will it take me home?/ If I follow the stars, would I get lost?" The yearning in his voice is so ineffably sad that I feel profoundly moved by it. I've played over and over again in an effort to articulate its strange power. But that's the thing about magic: it can't be explained and, besides, isn't it better not to spoil it?

I own every one of Otis's releases since 2006's Definition of a Circle and I'd say Contraband is definitely his best album to date. In a nice touch, Taylor dedicated the album to regular collaborator, and my all-time favorite guitarist, Gary Moore, who died last year.

I previously interviewed Otis Taylor for PopMatters in 2009 and you can read it here.

The new VAN HALEN album defied my admittedly poor expectations. The truth is that the first single from the album, "Tattoo," didn't win me over at first. Check out the video for it, immediately below. Dave Lee Roth seems to be an audition for Dancing with the Stars while wearing farmer John overalls. It's a bit like watching your hammy old uncle trying to perform the moonwalk at a wedding. Alex Van Halen, meanwhile, seems to have modeled his comb over on Donald Trump's hair. Eddie looks splendidly cool as always but he can't seem to mime the words properly. Wolfie might wanna get his mom to hook him up with Jenny Craig.

Yet the song has grown on me since I first heard it. And the new album, A Different Kind of Truth, turns out to be kick-ass, old-school Van Halen. Take a listen to the likes of "Big River," "She's a Woman," "China Town," and "As Is": Eddie sounds like a wild animal who has just been let off the leash! Alex, who is one of those rare drummers who has such a signature style of drumming that he is instantly recognizable and has a sound all his own, also locks into some great syncopated, fusion-y stuff with Eddie on a few numbers. Diamond Dave was never a great singer but I love the winking humor he brings to the party.

I've always felt that Eddie Van Halen is a bit of a one-dimensional player and he can't do soulful, heart-on-strings stuff but he's always dazzling. (And his technique and tone can still floor me—check out this gobsmacking solo he played at the band's tour rehearsals at The Forum in L.A.) As good as it is, A Different Kind of Truth has two failings. The first is that the guitar solos, though fast and furious, aren't as memorable as one would expect from EVH. A pity because the songs are pretty hooky. The second weakness is that the album is all one gear, one slamming song to the next, which makes it a great record for the car but it could have used some variety in its pacing. Van Halen is a great way to feed your inner 16-year-old.

The new album by AIR is a return to form. I was underwhelmed by Air's past two records, Pocket Symphony and Love 2, which seemed creatively stale to me. As the Virgin Suicides soundtrack revealed, the French duo seem to do their best work when they're scoring movies. Perhaps that's why Le Voyage Dans La Lune—an imaginary soundtrack to Georges Méliès' classic sci-fi movie A Trip to the Moon—finds them fully rejuvenated.

The album features many of Air's characteristically blissful and whispy atmospherics—there's an instrumental called "Moon Fever" that is one of their most beautiful compositions—but there's also a more cacophonous edge than before (by Air's standards, that is). Take a listen to the lovely "Seven Stars," featuring the vocals of Victoria LeGrand of Beach House, below. There's a limited edition version of the album that includes a DVD of Méliès' still trippy movie. (A nice companion piece to Air's album is Martin Scorsese's delightful movie, Hugo, which is all about Méliès.)

(Bad pun alert # 1) I've been plumbing the depths of the new FIELD MUSIC record, which plays like one continuous track. Plumb isn't as epic as the Brewis brothers' previous opus, Measure,  and has about half the running length of its predecessor. But each song is typically ambitious with more ideas in a handful of minutes than songs double the length. Call it pocket prog. Indeed, Field Music are unabashed fans of progressive rock bands such as the great King Crimson and early Genesis. (Here's their guide to prog for MOJO magazine.) At times, the band's atypical, but always hooky, arrangements recall the sound of XTC, Camel and Genesis. The lead guitar owes much to Jimmy Page.

As music reviewer Andre Salles notes in his review of the album over at his great weekly review site, Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. (bookmark it!), Field Music's songs boast strong melodies yet, strangely, often fail to lodge in the memory banks. One exception on Plumb is "Choosing Sides," which boasts a great chorus that I've been humming all week.

(Bad pun alert # 2): My ears are currently ringing with the sounds of the new SCHOOL OF SEVEN BELLS album, Ghostory. The band rose out of the ashes of Secret Machines when multi-instrumentalist Benjamin Curtis hooked up with two gorgeous identical twin sisters, Claudia and Alejandra Deheza, and formed a dreampop outfit. But after the release of the band's second album, Disconnect from Desire, Claudia left the band. I worried about how that would affect the dynamic of the group as much of the sister's vocal harmonies were key to its sound. On the irresistable opening track, "The Night," you wouldn't know SVIIB was just a duo. Alejandra's vocals have been multi-tracked to replicate the band's typical sound.

"The Night" is my favorite on the album (download it as a free MP3 from Amoeba Records by going here and also grab a remix of the other lead single, "Lafaye," from Amoeba Records by going here. If you don't immediately see both songs, just go back and search the MP3 archives...)  Overall, it's a pretty strong record that benefits from the inclusion of an actual drummer laying down dance beats rather than a drum machine. "Low Times" is a great showcase for what the band does best: floaty vocals surfing a relentless electronic groove.

The danger with dreampop/shoegaze albums is the that all the edges tend to get smoothed out and, if you're not listening intently, the songs can slip pleasantly into the background. Indeed, Ghostory sags around tracks 5 and 6 before rallying for the thrilling final trio of songs, "Scavenger," "White Wind," and "When You Sing." Take a listen to "The Night" below.

Question: What happens when two members of my two favorite bands collaborate? Answer: My head explodes. This month, STEVE HOGARTH + RICHARD BARBIERI released an album titled Not the Weapon but the Hand. Hogarth is the lead singer in Marillion; Barbieri is the pioneering keyboard player in Porcupine Tree (and, before that, Japan). Barbieri, a close friend of Hogarth ever since he played keyboards on the singer's solo album Ice Cream Genius, initiated the project by sending along a series of instrumentals for the singer to write lyrics for.

I like to tell people that Marillion reach musical and emotional planes that most bands don't know exist. (If you go to Marillion's website, they will send you a fantastic 10-track sampler CD in exchange for an email address. Take a chance on it -- you may well be pleasantly surprised. Here's a link: Here's a link: On the site, plug headphones into your computer and take a listen to the songs—for starters, try "Afraid of Sunlight"—what an incredible chorus!)

One of the key ingredients that make the band so special is that Hogarth fearlessly lays himself emotionally bare with a voice that’s as beautifully unique as that of, say, Jeff Buckley or Robert Plant. The feeling in his voice and the band's music is so palpable that it’s clear there’s nothing fake about it.

Hogarth sings much differently on this album than he does with Marillion. He's more hushed and whispery than usual and it makes for a very intimate effect. My fave track, "Your Beautiful Face" is one of the most emotionally revealing things he's ever sung as he recounts an episode in his life in which a beautiful woman tried to seduce him but, to quote the lyric, "there was steel behind your eyes ... forged from cunning in your heart ... and dark ambition in your mind." (See the video below for Hogarth's account of what happened.) There's exquisite tension in the contrast between the sharp contrast between the warm ambiance of the music and the dark bitterness of the lyric. At the end of the song, Hogarth sings, "Your beautiful face has aged, lost its power/You must have known it wouldn't last forever/ I see it in your daughter/ She's a softer soul/ I guess it's not the weapon that does the damage/ but in whose hand it rests." Ouch!

As a keyboardist, Barbieri is the anti Rick Wakeman. Barbieri not only forgoes glittery capes on stage (Porcupine Tree’s keyboardist does, however, have more black items in his wardrobe than Elvira), but he’s also disinterested in showing off technique and technical facility. Instead, Barbieri uses keys to create an intricate kaleidoscope of moods, atmospheres, and melodies. His previous two solo albums, Stranger Inside and Things Buried, are both excellent instrumental records that showcase the musician's almost organic approach to electronic music. (Do your ears a favor and grab several free downloads from those albums over on Barbieri's website,

On Not the Weapon But the Hand, the keyboardist yet again conjures up spooky ambient moods and otherworldly spaces,aided and abetted by textural guitarwork by Dave Gregory (formerly of XTC and currently with Tin Spirits) and, one track, drums by Chris Maitland (ex Porcupine Tree). "Naked" and "Crack" are the best melodies here and the closer, "Lifting the Lid," should appeal to fans of latter-day Massive Attack. Overall the album most plays like a tone poem that transports its listeners into realms that are as unsettling as they are serene.

GARY CLARK JR., a 27-year-old African-American bluesman from Austin, is a star in the making and I can't wait to see him perform at Coachella this year. The bluesman is like a combo of Hendrix, Albert Collins, Freddie King & Prince. Here's Rolling Stone's review of his debut EP and here's a Wall Street Journal piece on him. Check out the riptide guitar on the title track of his EP "Bright Lights," which you can download for free here. The EP is very inexpensive. Recommended.