Album review: The Crayon Fields – ‘All the Pleasures of the World’

Originally published on MadeLoud,  Dec 1, 2009

It’s a bit of a cliché to say that sometimes a whisper can speak louder than a shout, but there are plenty of musical precedents to support that notion. All the Pleasures of the World is a prime example of what John Cale termed “seducing down the door.” Hailing from Melbourne, Australia, The Crayon Fields infuse their second full-length with the soft-spoken tradition of bygone acts like The Zombies and The Turtles, with good doses of newer groups like Belle and Sebastian and Iron and Wine stirred in.

That isn’t to say that The Crayon Fields are all about the quietude – this isn’t a Low album by any means. To the contrary, the quartet shows a remarkable aptitude for upbeat, smokily seductive retro arrangements. The darkness and quirkiness that American audiences have come to expect from Australian imports is replaced by a straightforward approach that brings to mind several eras of Brit-pop production. Geoff O’Connor’s songwriting also follows in that tradition, flavoring his universal themes of life and love with a smooth, sardonic wit. (“Disappear,” for instance, opens with the striking couplet of “I hear drowning is pleasant once you’ve swallowed enough / and a tiny orgasm can be felt in a cough.”)

The album kicks off with an oddly harmonic combination of tinkling chimes and surf-style guitar on “Mirror Ball,” a slyly worded riff on romantic uncertainty (“You are still my high mirror ball / I look at you and suddenly I’m a virgin in a dancehall”). The infectious title track provides an excellent showcase for the subtle virtuosity of O’Connor’s twelve-string guitar, which manages to evoke artists as disparate as Dick Dale, Johnny Marr and Tom Verlaine in the space of three mellow minutes. Low-key tracks like “Timeless” (“When I wake up next to you / I forget I have a day to be dressed for”) and “Lucky Again” sound like they could have been unearthed from Peter and Gordon’s back catalog, a legitimate compliment in this instance.

If All the Pleasures of the World doesn’t exactly blaze any new trails, it does dig into a corner of ‘60s pop that’s been largely ignored by the current revivalist bonanza. The past decade has seen a resurgence of old-school soul, psychedelia and garage rock, but precious few artists have paid much mind to the more accessible sounds of former chartbusters like The Buckinghams and The Association. The Crayon Fields know there’s no shame in taking a walk on the softer side, so long as the path never gets too mushy.

Recommended Tracks: “All the Pleasures of the World,” “Mirror Ball,” “Disappear”

CD review: Dessa – A Badly Broken Code

Originally published on MadeLoudMarch 4, 2010

The evolution of a regional sound is a fascinating thing. It generally starts off as edgy and organic, but after a long enough run in the limelight, the elements and artists that once sounded so unique become familiar to the point of cliché. If the scene is to be saved, new artists need to push the template back toward the underground by stretching it in unexplored directions.

That’s where the Twin Cities hip-hop scene currently stands. After Atmosphere, Brother Ali and their Rhymesayers label mates won over a generation of college kids with their emotional appeals and literate flows, the local sound needed to make a move or risk drowning in its own sincerity. Enter Doomtree, an increasingly prominent Twin Cities hip-hop collective offering some refreshing mutations of the Rhymesayers DNA.

Dessa may be Doomtree’s most far-flung offshoot, a surprisingly soulful rapper/singer who brings a sharp mainstream sensibility to the sometimes oppressively indie Minneapolis sound. Her debut album kicks off with “Children’s Work,” an affecting, poetic story of sibling love (“I won’t pretend I don’t remember how unusual we were / The little mystic and his handler / All some children do is work”). If the opener plays to expectations, the haunting “Poor Atlas” takes the opposite tack. Dessa’s delicately layered a capella meditation on self-creation (“I’m building a body from blueprints in Braille / I’m building a body where our design has failed”) makes it clear she won’t be pigeonholed as a one-trick rapper.

A Badly Broken Code sometimes plays like a defiant statement from an artist eager to prove she can do it all right out of the gate. In less confident or competent hands, that might come off as desperation. Thankfully, Dessa’s honey-smooth voice and lyrical prowess are up to the challenge. She slides effortlessly from the bluesy hip-hop bounce of “Dutch” to the straight-up R&B crooning of “Go Home” to the slow-burning rage of “Seamstress.” If this album ever ends up being the subject of one of those “All-Star Tribute to…” compilations, the producers will have to cull artists from a wide range of genres to really do it justice.

Minneapolis rap is sometimes accused of letting its emo tendencies drift dangerously close to bathos, but Dessa’s superb songwriting keeps her clear of that pitfall. Though she handles pain and introspection as well as any rapper working today, she’s not afraid to cut loose now and then. The raucous “The Bullpen” tells us to “forget the bull in the china shop / There’s a china doll in the bullpen.” The indie rap community would do well to heed those words.

Recommended Tracks: “The Bullpen,” “Children’s Work,” “Seamstress”

Album review: Steve Riley & The Mamou Playboys – “Grand Isle”

Originally published on MadeLoud, Apr 6, 2011

When people think of musical genres most likely to be vehicles for biting sociopolitical commentary, Contemporary Cajun probably ranks somewhere between surf rock and nü-polka. But when you’ve witnessed an endless stream of horrors and frustrations like the ones that have been thrown at coastal Louisiana in the past decade, even the most apolitical local artist can’t help but let the righteous indignation shine through. Taking their album title from one of the towns hardest hit by last summer’s BP oil spill (not to mention a smaller March 2011 spill that was barely reported on by the national media), Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys let it be known that they have the bayou’s back.

Grand Isle kicks off with a spacey, pulsating tone that serves as an announcement that this ain’t gonna be the Cajun music you hear in Popeye’s commercials. The opener “Danser san comprendre (Dancing Without Understanding)” is all about universality. The accordion, guitar and fiddle blaze away as Riley’s vocals shift from English to French and back. It’s an ingenious illustration of the song’s basic concept: you don’t have to speak the language to dig the vibe. Things veer even farther off the trad-Cajun path with “Chatterbox,” a garage-rock-flavored stomper driven by New Orleans weirdo Quintron and his trademark “Drum Buddy” percussion machine. The intoxicating “C’est l’heure pour changer (This is the Time for Change)” isn’t quite as outré, but it’s no less affecting with its gurgling organ riffs and buoyant chorus.

Whether they’re delving into classic swamp pop ballads like “Non, je ne regretted rien,” mixing in a touch of country-western on “Grand Isle” or going for a straight-up tear-jerker like “Au Revoir,” The Mamou Playboys conduct themselves like the two-plus-decade veterans they are. Calling in ringers like Quintron, piano-slinger Jon Cleary and producer C. C. Adcock doesn’t hurt either. Grand Isle surefootedly covers a lot of terrain in the course of its twelve tracks, but the album never loses focus on what’s at stake on the Gulf Coast.

Actually, the average Grand Isle listener might not even suspect there’s any social commentary going on here (although the oil-soaked sea bird on the album cover is a bit of a giveaway). Many of the lyrics are in French, and the music is upbeat enough to pass as a party disc. But listen closely and it becomes clear that the Playboys’ tributes to the places and faces of the Louisiana lowlands are more than celebratory – they’re downright defiant.

Recommended Tracks: “C’est l’heure pour changer,” “Danser san comprendre,” “Grand Isle”

Album review: Charles Bradley – “No Time for Dreaming”

Originally published on MadeLoud, Jan 30, 2011 

Any musical revival movement has to allow for varying degrees of authenticity. The current neo-soul revival, for instance, needed folks like Amy Winehouse and Solange Knowles to ease in neophytes with a blend of old- and new-school sensibilities. Thus reassured, young audiences could feel more comfortable moving on to more straight-up traditionalists like Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, not to mention the ‘60s and ‘70s artists who were their inspirations. And now that music fans have a hearty helping of Dap under their belts, they might just be ready to delve into Charles Bradley.

Listeners coming into No Time for Dreaming cold might never suspect that this is a 2011 release. The 62-year-old Bradley’s shockingly overdue debut album sounds every inch like one of those forgotten classics from the early ‘70s that gets reissued only after a groundswell of crate-digger buzz. Released on the Dunham label, an imprint of the Sharon Jones-starring Daptone Records, No Time for Dreaming plucks former chef and handyman Bradley from decades of obscurity and gives him a vehicle that by all rights should make him a star.

Bradley’s breathtaking vocal command is evident from the get-go. On the ice-cold opener “The World (Is Going Up in Flames)” he’s equal parts James Brown rasp and Syl Johnson smoothness, while the seductive “The Telephone Song” finds him sliding seamlessly into harder-edged Marvin Gaye territory. The impeccable Menahan Street Band matches him shift for shift, tweaking their sound subtly from the JBs-style proto-funk of the title track to the Staxx soul of “Heartaches and Pain” to the Booker T groove of “Since Our Last Goodbye,” all with just a hint of Afrobeat rhythm mixed in.

Revival records sometimes get written off as novelty acts for the nostalgia set, but No Time for Dreaming is simply too strong to fall into that trap. Sure, a song like the aching “Lovin’ You, Baby” calls to mind a lost Otis Redding ballad, but Charles Bradley is too adept to lean on cheap mimickery. These songs are distinctly his, and they sound phenomenal no matter the era. It’s obvious that he spent a good chunk of the last five decades studying and absorbing the greats of the genre (James Brown in particular) but he clearly respects those legends too much to simply regurgitate their style. Big ups to the folks at Daptone for recognizing a diamond in the rough and giving him the chance to make one of surefire best albums of 2011.

Recommended Tracks: “The World (Is Going Up in Flames),” “I Believe in Your Love,” “No Time For Dreaming”

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