Saturday, November 28, 2015

Killing Joke At Full Throttle

I have a skeleton in my closet when it comes to Killing Joke: In my first band, the Young Aborigines, my colleagues and I used to make fun of them. Our main target of ridicule was their early single, Change, finding hilarity in it's minimalist lyrics and what we saw as a crude approximation of funk. Can't be right all the time, I guess. It took Andy Berenyi, the guitarist in my college band, to show me the light. And it shined bright in both of us: we named the band Silly/Hate and did a fair cover of Wardance, from KJ's debut. 

I went all in, tracking down all the music I could find and even citing a "Killing Joke fact of the day" when information was thin on the ground. But even with that devotion, I never would have predicted the current situation, with the band releasing Pylon in 2015, the third and best in a trilogy of records both classic and contemporary. Starting in 2010 with Absolute Dissent and including MMXI from 2012, each album a clarion call to take nothing in today's world for granted. Pylon is also their most scintillating release since 2003's self-titled return to form

Just to rewind a sec, understand that we are talking about a band more than a decade into its second (or maybe third) career. Their first life began in 1979 when they quickly established themselves as one of the most fascinating bands of the burgeoning post-punk era with Nervous System, a slice of taut reggae-funk with a large helping of modern dread. At first their label, Malicious Damage, was distributed by Island Records, but they really dropped the bomb on their debut, distributed by Editions EG, Brian Eno's label. That connection helped astute early listeners make sense of the mixture of ambient sounds, blistering guitars, pummeling drums and massively treated vocals from a former choirboy and classically-trained musician named Jaz Coleman.  

This was a man both disciplined and open to chaos. His partners were Geordie, a Grecian ode to rockabilly swagger, dealing death from a huge hollow body guitar, Youth, a sloppy-perfect bass and production maven, and Big Paul Ferguson, whose name aptly describes his sound. Most of these characters were unknowable if you only bought the records - their faces never appeared clearly until their fifth album in 1985. 

Along the way they managed to attract fan bases in both the worlds of metal and industrial music (which, it should be said, they helped invent), two groups that don't always agree on much. It was an eye-opener, at least for me, when Metallica included a cover of The Wait on their Garage Days EP. 

By the time of their most popular period, with singles like Eighties and Love Like Blood and the Night Time album, they'd already weathered their first storm, with Jaz off to Iceland to wait out the apocalypse and Youth nearly becoming an acid casualty of Syd Barrett proportions. In an interview he described tripping so hard that he looked at his bass and couldn't imagine a possible use for what appeared to be a random collection of metal and wood. When he came to, he knew he had to leave Killing Joke and produce Bananarama. Survival instincts. 

There's a polluted ocean under the bridge at this point, including the introduction of Paul Raven, muscular on bass, who remained until death did he tragically depart. Big Paul himself was briefly displaced by Martin Atkins, late of PiL etc., and even Dave Grohl, among other comings and goings. But the death of Raven seemed to lead to a rapprochement with Youth and all of a sudden we were looking at the four original members creating together again. 

This is, I believe, without precedent and feels at the same time completely inevitable. After his time in the pop market and as the other half of The Fireman (with Paul McCartney, who also plays a little bass) Youth has emerged as an historian-provocateur, spearheading projects like Killing Joke In Dub (mostly fantastic) and recording a crushing live album, Down By The River, without telling his band mates. These activities seem to have cemented the group more firmly. 

So what elevates Pylon above its recent companions, which were both very good albums? For one thing there's a stronger sense of each member's personality. Big Paul, for example, seems to be driving from the front seat more, with aggression and attention to detail. Jaz is letting his voice soar, spooling out longer melodic lines over Geordie's chunky chording. Geordie is a mighty force, slashing, scrubbing, or spraying widescreen arcs as befits the song - and his brawny guitar has never sounded better. Respect to Paul Dalgety, who produced the album with the band. Youth manages to inject a bit of wit into the proceedings, while still holding down the bottom. You will hunger for his louche little lick in Autonomous Zone after just a couple of listens. Jaz's use of keyboards is also distinctive, putting dissonance, white noise and other sonics into the mix alongside more traditional synth sounds.

The songs also seem stickier, as if they took their time a little more, rather than accepting the first impulse. New Jerusalem, for example, starts with a wary dialogue between bass and guitar, which soon develops into a lethal strut enhanced by some squirrelly synth. Jaz enters calmly, almost reciting the lyrics, but the calm is brief. With almost frightening ease they are instantly at full throttle, and that is always something to behold with this group. 

While they didn't print the lyrics, and Jaz's vocals are deeply embedded in the sound, there's a sense of depth and variety that feels a little different for them. I wouldn't say Jaz has mellowed but songs like Euphoria and Big Buzz make me think he's found a way to embrace broader ways of being. Don't get me wrong: there's still enough skepticism towards modern society and the security state to keep Edward Snowden entertained for some time. One point, however: If I ever meet Jaz I may have a quibble with him about his 9/11 truther line in I Am The Virus ("No one believes/In 9/11/Steel framed buildings/don't fall in seconds") - can't be right all the time, I guess.

Like some of Wire's recent albums (though not this year's, alas), Pylon is good enough to serve as an introduction to the venerable band, which is no small thing considering the creative half-life of most rock groups. So whether you're a dyed-in-the-wool Gatherer or new to the fold, find a safe place (an Autonomous Zone with "no phones, no drones," perhaps) to blast Pylon. And as you heed Jaz's call to "Dance to the beat of Goldman Sachs," don't be surprised if the world shakes a little. 

NOTE: This will be my last regular review of 2015. My "Best of 15" series will begin soon with a look at the best reissues of the year. Subscribe above, Like the Facebook page, or follow on Twitter to be sure not to miss anything.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Long Time Coming

Phil Cook and M.C. Taylor, brothers of the road.
I was wrong twice the other night. The first time was when this native New Yorker told someone at Canal Street that the downtown J train would take them to Delancey Street. My bad. I don't ride the J often enough to understand its wicked ways but I think I've got it down now. 

The second time was when my friend asked me "What's that instrument he's playing on the right?" "It's a Gretsch," I confidently replied, "they've come back in fashion lately." I also told him that John Lennon favored that sort of axe in the latter years of The Beatles. 

I couldn't resist pointing out that the bassist was playing a Gibson SG bass, another instrument I've seen often these days. The hegemony of the Fender Precision bass, fabulous as it is, seems to finally have ended, and the SG is a nice middle ground between that and the Hofner "violin" bass, which was made famous by Paul McCartney and became ubiquitous a couple of years ago. 

Anyway, it turned out that the Gretsch was actually a Guild, as I discovered when I got closer. At least I was right about the SG, and the Guild is a wide semi-hollow body not unlike the Gretsch. The object of this instrumental trainspotting was Hiss Golden Messenger, who were playing live right in front of us, and spectacularly, at Baby's All Right in Brooklyn. Sound is as important as song to Hiss Golden Messenger, which was why I was paying so much attention to what people were playing. Phil Cook was also on stage, playing a keyboard hidden in a rough-hewn plywood case as well as guitar. His brother Brad, AKA "the Rock," was on bass.

But the main man in Hiss Golden Messenger is M.C. Taylor, a singer, songwriter, and guitarist whose most recent album, Lateness of Dancers, topped my Best of 2014. This show was a consummation devoutly to be wished as I had missed a few opportunities to see them in the last year. To say it was worth the wait is a gross understatement - it was simply everything you could want from a rock & roll concert. 

There's a backbeat throb that Taylor and his comrades have mastered, with quarter-note bass lines and a fat snare, an hypnotic groove that irresistibly compels you to move. They worked that seam all night, mining a variety of moods from a rich motherlode of American music. After a brief intro before Taylor took the stage, they lit into Saturday's Song, and the jam-packed club was instantly into it. I scanned the crowd and found I was not the only one singing along, which was the case for nearly every song they played from Lateness Of Dancers. Intriguingly, a few of those songs were re-recordings from earlier in Taylor's career, but they didn't really connect. He's fully plugged in now and we all fed off the charge at Baby's.

As great as Taylor's lyrics are, this night was more about the music, with nearly every song achieving thrilling lift-off, sometimes verging on the edge of control. The man with the Guild (I missed his name!) was the ringleader on many of those occasions, which usually reached their height when he and Taylor turned their back on the crowd and lost themselves in the sound. We all followed them, aided by the weather and a malfunctioning air conditioner, which conspired to turn the club into a sweltering sweatbox. 

It was hot enough that I began to pontificate between songs about the Native American tradition of the sweat lodge. As my friend poured water on his head, I opined that perhaps it had been created as a way to alter their moods when they ran out of peyote - but what the hell do I know? (See J Train directions above for answer). In any case, our moods were definitely altered, in the direction of communal musical enjoyment.

Brother, Do You Know The Road?, from this year's Southern Grammar EP, was an extended highlight in a night filled with them. As the show neared its end, I turned to a guy next to me and said, "The next one is Southern Grammar, or he's saving it for the encore." Bingo - this time I was right - and the crowd exploded again, rocking out to a wicked riff that wouldn't sound out of place on a Dickie Betts & Great Southern album. 

I was dancing pretty hard, but no one was moving as much as Frazey Ford, who had opened the show and was now grooving off to the side, her hands in the air. Lucky lady - she gets to hear this every night while on tour. She was an apropos warm-up, too, her sweet Stax-folk sounding much less studied than on record. Her voice is warm and distinctive and the songs are sturdy. Her band was great, with two horn players enriching the sound. Phil Cook had started the night as her keyboard player, often employing that beloved Fender Rhodes setting, which sweetens everything.

Speaking of sweet, there was only a brief pause after Southern Grammar before the band returned for a single encore, a Waylon Jennings cover (Lonesome On'ry And Mean, I believe) that was a fitting capstone to the night. Then it was really over. The lights went up, Baby's began blasting cumbia and dancehall to prepare for a midnight show, and the crowd streamed out into the damp night.

I stood at the bar sipping a Blanton's and trying to make sense of what had transpired. It occurred to me that part of the wonder of what Taylor is up to is that this was only one possible way a concert by Hiss Golden Messenger could go. The songs are so good that I could picture a much mellower but no less satisfying evening featuring a stage crowded with fiddle, banjo, backup singers, and whatever else Taylor needed to add to realize his vision of Americana. I would happily sit and watch and hang on every brilliant word he sang. It was also pretty clear that HGM is outgrowing clubs the size of Baby's, a fact confirmed by Taylor when I spoke to him.

I also asked about the multimedia project he had premiered at Duke University just days before, called Heart Like A Levee and featuring photographs by William Gedney. "That's our next record," he told me, "but it won't come out for almost a year." Be still my heart. It's scheduled for next October and he hopes to tour with the photographs after it's released. I will be there, with eyes and ears open to whatever Taylor dreams up next. 

Here's a brief video that gives a sense of the show. See you at the next one.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Guilty Simpson & The American Dream

On the eve of the release of his latest album, Detroit's Son, I interviewed veteran rapper Guilty Simpson for Mass Appeal. Our discussion was wide-ranging, hitting the notes from his earliest memories of music to the development of his style, and from what it's like to grow up black in America to how he sees the landscape at the current fraught moment. 

Here's a sample quote:

So, is the American Dream a lie? Or is Guilty, in fact, living it? “I’m living it because I’m doing something that I love to do. But, when I look back through my history of making it, there wasn’t really a blueprint. It was all trial and error. I’m living the dream, but it’s almost like I survived my dream. I wanted be a doctor once, but it seemed so far-fetched. For some reason, I had a bigger dream: to be in the NFL. But even me, a black guy from Detroit, Michigan, I’m more likely to be a brain surgeon than to be a point guard for the Detroit Pistons. But, that’s the side that’s presented to me to become a success, rather than becoming a doctor, or a lawyer, or an architect. It’s kind of ‘all or nothing’ with us. There is no intermediate ground.”
Read the full article and don't get caught sleeping - Detroit's Son is an excellent album. Watch The D below. 

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Inspired Viola Of Melia Watras

Earlier this year, I reviewed Orli Shaham's Brahms Inspired, which featured new compositions alongside the works by old Johannes that sparked their creation. This may be an idea whose time has come as we now have Ispirare by violist Melia Watras, which features two newer works and the pieces that inspired them, plus a bonus Watras was inspired to record because of the inspiration of one of the new composers. Got that?

To quote Julian Craster, the composer from The Red Shoes, "Nothing matters but the music!" - so let's get on with it. The first piece is George Rochberg's 1979 Sonata, performed here with accompaniment from pianist Winston Choi. Rochberg was an American Serialist who famously rejected that controversial form in the 1960's and turned to a sort of mid-century neo-romanticism. In practice, at least in the Sonata, that ends up sounding a bit like 1950's Shostakovich, with sharp dance rhythms and broad melodic statements. While it is not a particularly memorable piece, it's a perfectly pleasant and honest listening experience. 

What really shines in the Rochberg is the performance and the recording. Ispirare is on the Sono Luminus label, which first came to my attention with In The Light Of Air, a staggering album of Anna Thorvaldsdottir's work performed by the International Contemporary Ensemble. [I should review it, but in case I don't have time here's the rub: GET IT.] Like that record, Ispirare is distinguished by a stunning recording, which translates in this case to a real sense of the personality of not only Watras' playing but of her instrument itself. In short, you can hear the wood, in all its depth and humanity. This is something richer than "perfect sound" and on a good system it's astonishing. 

Of course, you can only pay attention to the sound because Watras and Choi are such consummate musicians. It's a shame Rochberg didn't live to hear their performance - I doubt it can be bettered. Speaking of Choi, thanks to the liner notes I will now be seeking out his release of Elliott Carter's complete piano music. However, he is absent on the Rochberg-inspired Caprice Four (George) by Atar Arad, a composer who also taught Watras. 

This short piece, from 2003, is one of a series of a dozen caprices Arad composed as "thank you notes" to composers he admired. While he quotes from Rochberg, the mood of his work is entirely different, with an elegiac and mournful turn and much less adhesion to conventional form. Arad also makes good use of the edges of the Viola's sound and Watras brings his music to life with ease.

No disrespect intended, but both Rochberg and Arad are quickly forgotten when the plainchant opening of Luciano Berio's Black is the color... cuts into the atmosphere like an ancient scimitar. This is just a small part of Berio's Folk Songs project but it may be the most essential. Unlike Rochberg, Berio never tied himself to any movement whatsoever, confidently pursuing his interests wherever they led him. 

A quick survey of recordings of the Folk Songs finds a lot of issues, either with the sonics or the vocal approach. Watras has not only Sono Luminus on her side but also singer Galia Arad (yes, Atal's daughter...small world). Galia has established herself not only as a singer with a tone both lush and direct, but also as an accomplished songwriter. This gives her the freedom to settle into the structure of Berio's conception without concern about "classical" vocal style. She is understated but strong, more than a match for the searing, soaring playing by Watras. It's less than three minutes long but you will beg for hours. 

Berio's song was the choice of Shulamit Ran, a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer with roots in Israel. In tribute she came up with Perfect Storm, a 10 minute long solo viola piece that should be quickly taken up by players on the hunt for such repertoire. It feels like an expansion of the slight brutality of the Berio, very song-like and in no way polite. There's an emotional savagery to it that is very satisfying. This world premiere recording sets a high bar but I am hopeful that Perfect Storm will find its place in the culture. 

As mentioned above, Watras was so enamored of Ran's choice that she picked another Berio piece to end the album. Titled Naturale (su melodie siciliane), it is a continuation of his work with folk idioms, although with a southern Italian flair as opposed to the Appalachian bent of Black is the color...  Naturale, at 20 minutes the most substantial piece on Ispirare, features percussion (well-handled by Matthew Kocmieroski) and a startling recording of a Sicilian folksinger singing guttural Italian phrases from time to time. 

But the viola is the star and you feel Berio reveling in its dark and dimensional timbre while exploring its considerable range. Watras feels completely at home in Berio's world, carving her line in the ether like a rivulet of lava in a mountainside. Her performance here has left me desperate to hear her take on Voci, Berio's full-scale viola concerto. While she's at it, she could assay his Sequenza VI for solo viola. Boom - I've just planned out her next album. 

And that's really my only quibble with Ispirare. The Berio-Ran-Berio sequence of the second half is so much stronger than the Rochberg and Atar that the album feels slightly unbalanced. Maybe a playlist with the last three tracks first, leaving the Rochberg and Atar as a palate cleanser would make more emotional sense. But listen for yourself first, and soon. Don't let my critical inquiries come between you and some very fine - and inspired -  music. 

You might also enjoy:
A Pair From Plum
Conversing Across The Centuries, Part 1: Orli Shaham & Brahms
Conversing Across The Centuries, Part 2: Italia
Pianos In Contex

Monday, October 19, 2015

Born In 1944

Today in 1944 saw the birth of both George McCrae and Peter Tosh, two musicians who have given me much happiness since my childhood.

Hearing McCrae's Rock Your Baby would alternately have me feeling slightly melancholy and tapping my toes - it still has much the same effect. The proto-disco song was co-written by Casey (KC) and Finch of KC & The Sunshine Band and came out of the TK Records system, just one of Henry Stone's landmark projects.

Give a listen - does it make you feel good, too?

George's wife Gwen was also a beneficiary of the genius of TK, having a hit with Rocking Chair, which was included on an excellent album of the same name.

But Gwen was actually born in December 1943 so pardon the digression. I just love that TK sound!

Peter Tosh made his mark as a member of The Wailers with Bob Marley and Bunny Wailer. He had a uniquely deep voice and a folk-based songwriting sensibility that worked very well in the context of the Jamaican genres he worked in from ska to reggae.

After he and Bob could no longer work together (and Bunny retreated to the hills), Tosh had a strong solo career, especially out of the gate with the Legalize It and Equal Rights albums. 

I think the moment he became crucial to me was watching the classic reggae movie Rockers at a midnight show somewhere when I was in high school. Stepping Razor came on the soundtrack and I was had to have it. It may be that his ultra-tough image came tragically home to roost in 1987 when he was gunned down in his own house.

I once heard a radio broadcast where Tosh introduced one of his songs as being for "the intellectual herb smoker," which was quite accurate. Although his patois was often darkly humorous (Chris Blackwell became "Chris Whitewrong" in his parlance) he was fundamentally a serious dude. That made it all the more delightful when he hooked up with that old scamp Mick Jagger to cover Smokey Robinson's Don't Look Back, originally recorded by The Temptations.

Tosh and Jagger's wickedly good version was actually the second time the reggae magus had sung the song. The first time was back in 1966 under The Wailers name. Although Marley was far away, trying to make ends meet in Delaware or Detroit, the song was credited to him! There's no music biz like the Jamaican music biz.

There's your 1944 rabbit hole for today. If you want to go deeper into the world of Henry Stone, check out the playlist below.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Not The Price But The Cost

Lloyd Price, the untold story.
In 1969, 17 years after his first million seller, Lloyd Price nearly cracked the R&B Top 20 with the funky social criticism of Bad Conditions. "Psychedelic age on campus grounds/Tear gas, billy clubs and vicious hounds/People making promises that they can't keep/System's turning over for its final sleep/We're living in bad conditions!" That's a long way from Lawdy Miss Clawdy. It's also quite an accomplishment for a founding father of rock and roll to so successfully insert himself into late 60's culture. 

Lloyd Price NOW!, the album that contains Bad Conditions, also delivers credible takes on Light My Fire, Hey Jude, By The Time I Get To Phoenix, For Once In My Life, and other songs. It's a solid album, with Price in fine, soulful voice, but you won't hear a word about it in sumdumhonky, Price's new memoir. Except for a picture caption, you also won't hear a thing about how he ended up working with Don King to produce the notorious Rumble In The Jungle, or about how one of his labels released early sides by Wilson Pickett.

What you will hear a lot - and I mean A LOT - about is Price's disturbing and disgusting experiences with racism in the Jim Crow south. Growing up in Kenner, LA in the 1930's was a profoundly demoralizing experience for anyone of a darker tone, ruled as they were by all the iterations of "sumdumhonky" you can imagine, and some you likely can't. Casting a long shadow over Price's childhood was Ol' Jake, the barely literate local lawman. His idea of a good time was to hang around the railroad tracks with his friends, lying in wait for Price and other kids. "They'd stand to block our path and laugh their asses off. We were scared half to death because we didn't know what they might do next," Price writes in Who Feared Whom, the first chapter. "Sometimes they'd grab one of our hands and hold it to their ass and laugh while they farted on it and scream, "Boy, spot that!" This is what they called having fun: scaring little boys who were just eight and nine years old."

This is obviously horrendous and, along with cross-burning and lynching, forms a background which would be a challenge for the strongest among men to overcome. As Price puts it: "As we grow older we tend to let our minds review our souls and sometimes we are amazed at ourselves - and the things our hearts have withstood. As I see it now, the white man of my younger days was a master sociologist - and a brutal one at that - because he knew how to downplay a black man's pride, not taking account of the fact that we had limited opportunities." 

But overcome it Price did, following his desire to make music and also help support his family in the wake of his father's workplace injury. Of course, becoming a national celebrity with Lawdy Miss Clawdy at the age of 17 came with its own challenges, some of them the usual music biz tales of woe, some of them due to becoming a prominent black man in an America that rejected the very notion. Also, there's the fact that his music had a way of bringing black and white kids together on the dance floor in a society where race-mixing just wasn't done. Understand, Lawdy hit in 1952, which puts Price on the leading edge of both the rock and roll and civil rights revolutions.

But what of the music? Where did it come from and what were the roots of Price's creativity? Besides a few paragraphs here and there, we get precious little about it. We also don't hear much about trying to stay relevant in the rapidly changing world of pop culture - no thoughts on the British Invasion, the rise of James Brown and funk, not to mention disco and hip hop. While he does have some interesting things to say about being placed in the "oldie but goodie" ghetto, he spends more time asking questions with no answers like "Can you imagine an entire race of people who are afraid that God didn't like black people?"

Don't get me wrong - the tales of late-night drives through Mississippi in a brand new Cadillac or of bribing his way into Nigeria only to find "people, black people, peeing and pooping on the road" - range from harrowing to hilarious and are written vividly. But I ultimately found sumdumhonky to be an unsatisfying read. I couldn't help but feel that Ol' Jake might have won the day after all. To my mind, this makes Price's experience of racism even more tragic. It also makes sumdumhonky an important but deeply flawed book.

When I got sumdumhonky, I turned first to the pictures. Great shots abound - the trip to Hollywood for the 1953 Cash Box awards, getting down in a huge-collared jumpsuit in 1968, receiving an honorary doctorate in 2001. When I looked back at the photos after finishing the book, I was struck by the chasm between the story they told and the one the words depicted. Perhaps a good, tough editor or co-writer could have helped bring the two closer together.

One gift the book gave me was the discovery of Price's later music. Perhaps you'll enjoy it, too - here's a quick mix.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

New Americana Pt. 2: Hamilton Leithauser & Paul Maroon

Hamilton and I In "Deluxe Shipping" Moment

Robert Johnson, they say, met the devil at a crossroads and bargained his soul for a dramatic improvement in his guitar playing. While I doubt souls were exchanged, something certainly happened when Hamilton Leithauser spent time with Robin Pecknold during a joint tour by The Walkmen and Fleet Foxes. Since then, Leithauser has sung like a goddamned angel, with an ease and confidence that I would not have predicted while playing the early Walkmen records again and again. And on last year's debut solo album, Black Hours, he wrote a set of songs that fit his new Great American Songbook vocal swagger to a T. 

As I noted in my review of Black Hours, even though The Walkmen were on hiatus their guitarist, Paul Maroon, had not left Leithauser's side, appearing on nearly every song on the album. So I was unsurprised when I got word that Hamilton's latest record, Dear God, would be co-credited to Maroon. I was surprised, however, at the opportunity to meet Hamilton as part of a very limited "deluxe shipping" offer through his Etsy store

It took a little time but it eventually happened, which is how I ended up talking to Hamilton on the sidewalk while his two kids waited patiently in their carseats. I didn't bring up Pecknold or demonic bargains, but I did note that he and Maroon seemed to have a fruitful musical bromance ("Like Bowie & Ronson," I said - he got a kick out of that!). I wondered why only the new album had both their names, even though Maroon was such an elemental part of Black Hours. It seemed to have a lot to do with the origin of the songs on that album, and also the fact that two of them were collaborations with Vampire Weekend's Rostam Batmanglij.

Dear God, Leithauser told me, came out of the idea that it would just be him singing and Maroon on one instrument for each song. "Paul cheated a little and used a sampler on a couple of songs, but that was the basic idea." He also confirmed that this was a vinyl only release and that they would be playing these songs in concert - check your local listings

Naturally, due to the original conceit, Dear God is a much more intimate album than the big and bold Black Hours, a Cassavetes character study instead of a big Hollywood production. But it is an equally masterful example of singing and songwriting in the American vein. It is also partly Leithauser's meditation on where sees his place in that tradition, sprinkling four covers among its 13 tracks. Tom Paxton's Annie's Going To Sing Her Song is a hushed waltz in the original but Leithauser takes off on the version Bob Dylan recorded during the Self Portrait sessions, which was released on Another Self Portrait last year. Dylan put some new angles into the chorus, making it more of a hook. It's even more angular in Leithauser's version, which I believe to be definitive. 

While I'm not a fan of Will Oldham (or Palace Music, or Bonnie Prince Billy, or whatever he's calling himself these days), Leithauser pulls something out of his Trudy Dies that makes it more memorable than the original, playing his vocal dynamics off of Maroon's steady acoustic picking to give the song more shape. 

The Everly Brothers are one of those weird bands that are indubitably part of the bedrock of modern music but that I don't always like. Some of their songs are devastatingly good while others are grating and formulaic. The song Hamilton chose, Just One Time, is one of the latter but he and Maroon take all the obnoxious right out of it, playing it like a distant memory, with double-tracked vocals, harmonica, and a hypnotic, droning acoustic strum. It's still a slight song, without the simple profundity of, say, Buddy Holly, but it works well in Dear God's context - more on that later.

The album takes its name not from the XTC song - THAT would have been interesting - but rather from an early Patsy Cline song written by V.F. Stewart, known for the oft-covered Just Out Of Reach. Leithauser gives Cline's country waltz a bit of a barroom flavor, with Maroon's upright piano soldiering on bravely. It's a Sunday morning song transformed into a drinking song and it ends the album on a witty and rueful note.

The four songs covered could be seen as a short survey of some of what Leithauser and Maroon are attracted to in American song - waltz rhythms, melancholy lyrics, sing-along choruses - and their own tunes follow these threads to some interesting places. Proud Irene opens side one with piano filigrees setting the stage for a classic-sounding chord sequence. Hamilton enters with a hushed tone, singing close to the mike. The chorus is just the one word: "Irene," but you still want to join in. It's a clever bit of misdirection and a sign of their deep understanding of song form. 

Utica Avenue features Maroon on organ and a chorus of Leithausers singing funereally. In fact, my wife just requested it for her services when the unimaginable comes to pass - that's a tough playlist to write for, but these guys nailed it. Trudy Dies is next, followed by Light Sleeper, a melodic piano study by Maroon, and then Dad Is Drunk, with Maroon picking a circular riff on electric guitar. "There's wine on my breath, and wine in my pocket, and wine waiting for me, where I dropped it," Hamilton sings without a note of regret. Later, the singer claims to be "hopelessly optimistic," wishing to turn "black eyes white." There's a story here, but it's given to us in fragments. Paxton's song closes out the side, the perfect follow up to Dad Is Drunk: "Annie's gonna sing her song called take me back again." Maybe mom is drunk, too. 

Side two fades in on Two Dark Summers On Long Island, which would almost fit on The Velvet Underground's third album. Maroon's folky picking has a bleak tinge and he uses those cheating samplers to create a spooky atmosphere. Hamilton sings along with himself, some half-remembered tale hinted at by the title. Just One Time becomes just another memory, now, with How And Why? completing the thought: "You were always on my side," Hamilton sings over and over again, hinting at betrayal and loss. 

Your Swingin' Doors is even more mournful at first, but Hamilton raises the temperature to rage against the dying of the light. I Never Should Have Left Washington, DC is a reworking of Utrecht, a bonus track from Black Hours. It's just as brilliant a song in this stripped down version and sets the stage for Loyalty Road, a haunting guitar instrumental with a strong narrative drive. Then comes the redemptive request of Dear God to send us home. 

Dear God is a bravely bare setting for Leithauser to display his vocal talents and he is more than up to the task. With The Walkmen and now beyond he is carving unique place in the American musical firmament and observing the process has been an involving and emotional experience. And like the best stories, I can't wait to see what happens next. 

In fact, he and Maroon have hinted at the next chapter with I Could Have Sworn, a five-song EP that includes Utica Avenue and four new songs, the latter with drummer Hugh McIntosh. Opener My Reward is an uptempo number with slashing chords and Leithauser pushing his voice ragged. New England Crows has Maroon giving us a hint of Johnny Marr but Leithauser is at his most intense, especially in a thrilling wordless section. Cry Out For Me is a pop explosion with a Chuck Berry song buried deep within. Immediately Alone is all shimmer and sigh with a gorgeous piano backdrop from Maroon bringing us full circle to where Dear God started.
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