CD Reviews – November 2012

Back again with an assortment of music I’ve been enjoying and suspect you will too. Be it given two stars or five, everything covered here offers something for someone. Be sure to continue supporting our fine, locally-owned record stores, letting them know with your dollars how glad we are to have them.

The Mason Brothers

Ghost Season
Old Dark Will Music

In stark contrast to their previous offerings, The Mason Brothers’ Ghost Season is the sound of the two in full gear, moving beyond their folk roots to include horns, orchestrated dense arrangements, and a diversity of style that 2007’s The Sun, the Moon, and the Sea scarcely hinted at. Equally inspired by the dark musings of Elliot Smith and Nick Drake — as well as the off kilter machinations of Syd Barrett era Pink Floyd — the album is a kaleidoscopic ride of sound and spirit. While James’ singing is often little more than a calm whisper, it fits the tortured nature of the material perfectly.

The vocal dynamics of such tracks as “Water Well” and “Ignore that Ghost” are so understated that it’s easy to first miss the amazing quality of nuance that goes into their creation. Yes, they often veer too readily into the dreaded “sensitive guy singer” category but the there’s something undeniably attractive in their sound, a sort of field recording ethos that carefully blends together the past and present.

At times the ramped up production seems at odds with the vocals and much of the lyrical content is lost in the mix. And while Ghost Season lacks the sort of catchiness that will bowl you over, it sounds better with each listen.

Since its release the band has expanded into a trio and recorded yet another record. I’ll be sure to review Ivy in the Orange Groove in the coming months; if nothing else Ghost Season has left me wanting to hear more. ***

Aimee Mann

Charmer
Superego Records

With 2008’s @#%&*! Smilers Aimee Mann began to move away from the introspective song cycles she’d so successfully explored and return somewhat to the pure pop pleasures with which she’d made her mark. Leaving behind to sober remembrances of The Forgotten Arm — a record I loved then and know — Mann brightens her musical palette with trebly guitars, drum kits, and synthesizers that would sound right at home in the early years of MTV. Which, considering that Mann once fronted the band ‘Til Tuesday is not such an odd thing.

Co-produced by Paul Bryan — whose association with Mann goes back to 2006 — Charmer is over-stuffed with the sort of spiky hooks and precise melody that Mann seems to so effortlessly concoct. She’s at her most insistently listenable, delivering an eleven song gem that begs to be hummed along to. But make no mistake, in no way is Charmer either light weight or some garish new wave revival record.

Mann still has a fondness for stately mid tempo marches (“Slip & Roll” and “Barfly) and three minute pop delights (everything else) but she layers her songs with a muscularity that gives even the more popish moments heft. Combined with Charmer’s running time of under 40 minutes, you’ve got an album that never overstays its welcome, relying on the inherent charms of the singer. It’s an amusing side note that Mann has chosen to name her label Superego. As an artist she’s pretty damn super. As a person one gets the sense her ego is balanced just right. ***1/2

Ryan Bingham

Tomorrowland
Axster Bingham Records

It’s an old adage that a band (or solo artist) spends twenty years making their first album and six months making the second. Nowhere does this sound truer than on Tomorrowland, Bingham’s closely watched follow up to his stunning 2010 debut Junky Star.

If that album had the desperate wail of a man possessed, this one smacks a bit too much of giving the people what (he thinks) they want. Following the release of Star, Bingham ditched his record company (as well as his long time band the Dead Horses) and started his own label. It’s the sort of ballsy move that might in the long run pay dividends but for now seems to be a retreat.

Tomorrowland was co-produced by the artist and Justin Stanley. Its 13 songs run the gamut, from tightly written, acoustically driven Americana tunes to loud — and deliberately shambling — rockers. Given the socio-political themes here, it’s clear that Bingham has an axe to grind, both as an artist and as a citizen of the world. That doesn’t always work to his advantage, however, and therein lies part of this album’s charm and potential downfall.

The opening “Beg for Broken Legs” is a lovely balance of acoustic and electric guitars, nicely kicking drums and a bass line that grabs you by the throat. But with verses sung from one perspective and a chorus from another it loses focus; even its Woody Guthrie like refrain (“I ain’t gonna stand in line/Beg for bread from up off the floor”) becomes a bit of a drone.

The six-minute “Western Shore” is much well defined; its mix of strummed 12-strings, mandolin, and muted electrics work their way into a swirling tempest of sonic textures that never succumb to the deliberate excess in the track’s production and create a necessary tension — they are easily the strongest tracks here, and a direction that Bingham would do well do explore. Unfortunately he soon follows it with “Guess Who’s Knocking,” a clumsy barroom singalong that feels as forced as it is flat.

For the rest of the album Bingham bounces from rockabilly to faux soul and back to country rock. The result is an album full of the artist’s frustration, anger and conviction that ultimately misses the mark. It could have been so much more and, given the quality of its predecessor, can only be considered a let down. **1/2

Ken Stringfellow

Danzig in the Moonlight
Spark and Shine Records

Despite an eight-year drought between solo albums, Ken Stringfellow has been one busy guy. Between touring with R.E.M. fronting the re-formed Big Star, recording a new Posies record, and releasing two albums with his Norwegian garage rock outfit The Disciplines, he’s hardly had time to catch his breath. But he did find a spare moment to gift us with his latest delight.

Danzig in the Moonlight (and no, I don’t have the slightest idea what the title means) finds the venerable singer/songwriter tossing all of those experiences into the blender and serving up a veritable horn of plenty. Recorded in Brussels — with the assistance of friends from all corners of the globe — his fourth solo outing is as spellbinding as it is willfully schizophrenic, incorporating elements of progressive art rock, country, soul, R&B, and straight-up Posies-inspired jangle pop without a care in the world.

The result is his most audacious studio offering yet, and one of the most satisfying projects he’s ever been associated with. From the opening “Jesus Was an Only Child,” a temperamental joy which glides easily from dreamy electro-pop to world beat, the record feels like a fan’s dream proposal come to life. Even when it doesn’t work — and any record this ambitious is certain to have a few missteps — there’s always the sort of unexpected moment, such as the breezy radio friendly bliss of “You’re the Gold” that strikes the proper balance between adventurous and self absorption. If anything, Stringfellow fans of every persuasion will walk away with at least one or two prizes flashing back to their favorite Stringfellow song.

In a career as vital yet underappreciated as his, Ken Stringfellow has had every reason to pack it up and go home. Thankfully he’s kept plugging away and if we have to wait another eight years for a record as good as this then so be it. ****

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