Pop/Rock Record Reviews November 2022
KRS689 Reverie Library (CD). 2022. Margo Broom, prod.; Nathan Ridley, P.Eng.
Tough times can be fertile ground for great music, and right now the UK music scene appears to be in healthier shape than its economy. Big Joanie is one of the strongest signs of the finesse of his temperament.
Back home is the second album by three young black women—Stephanie Phillips (vocals/guitar), Estelle Adeyeri (vocals/bass), and Chardine Taylor-Stone (vocals/drums)—who call themselves Big Jonie. They have steadily developed a following through their 2018 debut album, Sistasand tours with artists like St. Vincent and Bikini Kill. Back home will further extend the following.
Big Joanie is a tight band with expert musicianship and three powerful vocalists, who use a variety of influences including punk, rockabilly, early soul and even 80s electronica. Every track is short , compact and focused. Margo Bloom’s production is simple and straightforward. It’s like in days like these they feel like there’s no time for excess or filler because every song has a job to do and has to do it as straight as possible.
Not that the songs are thrash punk. The members of Big Joanie use their different styles to shape a song, deliver the lyrics or convey an emotion. There is, of course, a well-defined Big Joanie sound, but it is not static. “Sainted” reminds me of early synth bands. “I Will” features an organ that could easily have been on a Small Faces track. Numbers such as “Taut”, “In My Arms” and the single “Happier Still” are ridiculously catchy. “Cactus Tree” begins almost like a classic singer-songwriter tune before Phillips’ buzzsaw guitar crashes.
Forty years ago was another difficult time; at the time, there was another trio that merged radical politics with great music: The Redskins. They stated their goal to “walk like the Clash and sound like the Supremes”. You could say something similar about Big Joanie.—Phil Bret
Mike Cooper: Forbidden Delta Planet Blues
16/44.1 Bandcamp download, no catalog number. 2022. Mike Cooper, prod., eng.
It would be easy to relegate guitarist Mike Cooper to equally raced status, but it’s more appropriate to congratulate him for walking a path less traveled and groomed.
Cooper was part of the folk-blues revival in Britain in the 1960s, but in the decades that followed he pursued a multifaceted muse, which led him to Hawaiian and Polynesian influences, the long-term improvisation and sound collage. His Americana abstractions sometimes resemble late-day John Fahey, but Cooper’s dialect is distinctive.
“Forbidden Delta Planet Blues” is a touchstone for Cooper; the work, or structure, was previously heard on a 2015 album of the same title. The new album, which bears the same title, contains five long and very different versions of the work, lasting 1 ¾ hours.
“Forbidden Delta Planet Blues” is not so much a composition as a structure in which he feels comfortable working. There are no repeated themes; rather there’s a cohesive vibe that builds into a long suite in which all the sounds are produced by a guitar but only sometimes sound that way.
The tracks were recorded in Greece and Italy (Cooper may have been born in Britain, but he knows the climate he likes) using a 1932 Resophonic tri-cone lap steel with an internal mic, a lap 1960s National Chicagoan electric guitar and a third steel guitar. of its own design through a range of effects and then directly to a Zoom H2 recorder. There were no ambient mics, overdubs or post-production, which gives the mix a very present sound. There’s not much of a soundstage, left to right; Cooper creates space in layers and in dynamics. Listening is like a lucid dream, or maybe a role-playing video game: you come in, know the terrain, and dive deeper to experience new surroundings. Thanks to the warmth and openness of Cooper’s musicality, the listener feels like they’re dreaming, not just watching one.—Kurt Gottschalk
Dry cleaning: Filling
4AD (Download). 2022. John Parish, prod.; Joe Jones, P.Eng.
Dry Cleaning’s debut album, New long leg (4AD), was one of my favorites of 2021. Florence Shaw’s spoken singing style paired beautifully with Tom Dowse (guitar), Lewis Maynard (bass), and Nick Buxton (drums), creating music that nods to late 70s British post-punk and the music of their independent contemporaries.
Dry cleaners, however, are not mere copyists. They manage, with the help of producer John Parish (best known for his work with PJ Harvey), to create their own distinct sound. I was worried that they would start their follow-up immediately after finishing their debut; there’s a whole section in my record collection devoted to rushed and weak second albums. Filling, however, looks great. Retaining what worked – Shaw’s poetry about daily life in South London and Dowse’s jangly guitar – they added a wider palette of sounds. Maynard and Buxton are pushed further into the mix, giving it an almost dancing (or at least foot tapping) feel. That’s the thing with Dry Cleaning: there’s a bounce in their music.
With Shaw’s terse delivery and words focused on the unspectacular, the mundane could so easily be boring. I mean, “Gary Ashby” is about a pet turtle (joining the small, select group of songs on the Cryptodira suborder). Not that there aren’t more substantial themes in their music: “Hot Penny Day” itself refers to a problematic relationship (“it’s not what you think it is”), to the growing number of murdered women in London (“I see men violence everywhere”), and the impending financial crisis (“I don’t want to get into your bank account or give you nightmares”). Subjects not very light and fluffy. However, with their more expansive set of musical tools, Parish’s sharp production, and Shaw’s humorous, deadpan asides, they avoid any sense of gloom. Defined as one of the best albums of 2022.—Phil Bret
Bonny Rider Light: Rolling Golden Holy
37d03d Records (CD, also available on LP). 2022. Josh Kaufman, prod. ; Bella Blasko, P.Eng.
Without stressing it too much: supergroup Bonny Light Horseman’s second album is a siesta. It’s no fun being a party animal, but as someone who’s written extensively about traditional folk ballads, the ageless resonance of which this trio seeks to capture, I’m disappointed in Rolling Golden Holy.
Anaïs Mitchell is a folk music superstar, creator of the hit Broadway musical Hadesville, which began life as the fourth of Mitchell’s eight solo albums. Alone, Mitchell fearlessly faces the cosmos.
If his slightly grating soprano is an acquired taste, I acquired it. His latest album—Anais Mitchell– came out earlier this year, and it has the meat and heft that Rolling Golden Holy lack. The other two members of Bonny Light Horseman are eminences of the folk world, in a way: Eric D. Johnson, the leader and only permanent member of Fruit Bats, and producer/multi-instrumentalist Josh Kaufman (Bob Weir, Josh Ritter, The National, Taylor Swift), who honorably discharged Anais Mitchell‘s producer.
So what’s missing? Fire, in a word. These new songs, co-credited to all three members, lack bite. The melodies are not memorable, the airy textures barely vary. To borrow a phrase from a great bard, the album sails towards the mystical but without the soul of Van Morrison. Johnson’s high tenor sounds at times like Gillian Welch’s duetmate David Rawlings, but while Rawlings’ voice effectively augments his partner’s, I find Johnson’s to be sickening.
Rolling Golden Holy has a keeper, “Sweetbread”; its deadpan lyrics and Johnson’s banjo evoke the Southern Appalachian blues ballad of a Roscoe Holcomb or a Dock Boggs. Still, Mitchell would be better off focusing his substantial energy on his own fine work and finding collaborators whose gifts come close to his own. Auditioned with headphones.—Tony Scherman