It's All Around You
The Chicago deconstructionists set the bar so high with their first two releases -- Tortoise and Millions Now Living Will Never Die -- that thousands now listening may wonder whether the post-rock pioneers have run out of stuff to reassemble and become one of those very genres they were so good at taking apart.
But just because It's All Around You is no Millions... (what is?) and doesn't alter the playing field like early Tortoise, that's no reason to dismiss the record out-of-hand, as some disappointed fans have. Had the same types never heard Tortoise's approach before, the first four songs alone from this one -- which blend seamlessly together like one long suite -- would probably receive the same hyper-ventilated kudos the mini-epic "Djed" on Millions... did.
Other new cuts reveal producers and musicians more skilled than ever before, and a level of emotional attachment greater than their last record, 2001's coldly executed Standards. In addition to the four opening tracks: "Salt the Skies" juxtaposes jazzy vibe-work with a furious post-rock guitar solo from Jeff Parker; "Dot/Eyes" is a piece of sci-fi neuroses driven inexorably on by relentless high-hat and bass drum; and "Five Too Many" relies on a funk-filled riff guaranteed to get a groove thing goin'.
The news isn't all good, though. "Unknown" begins as a haunting dirge in search of a crescendo that never arrives; "On the Chin" has a gorgeous vibes line, but sounds way too much like an outtake from William Orbit's Strange Cargo series, and "By Dawn" just sort of lies there in a pool of synth wash like a dying fish for two minutes without doing much of anything.
Still, you can hold Tortoise to the ridiculously high standards they set for themselves, or you can wash all that from your mind's filter and just let It's All Around You envelop you. If you can adapt to the latter approach, you'll find yourself rediscovering much of what Tortoise made so interesting in the first place.
Track to Burn: "Five Too Many"
Grade: B--John Schacht
Stone, Steel, & Bright Lights
It's a cliche, but Jay Farrar has one of those voices so rich and distinct he could probably make a decent album by simply singing the phone book. Then again, perhaps the only complaint folks have about the former Uncle Tupelo/Son Volt frontman is that his lyrics can sometimes seem so obscure and obtuse you think perhaps he's doing just that.
Seeing Farrar live, however, has always provided some needed context to his flowery forays. Once on stage, Farrar seems to plug into the "Rock & roll around my head, alive and kicking" that he describes on one of the two new cuts on Stone, "6 String Belief."
Comprised of songs from Farrar's September and October 2003 tour with the band Canyon, Stone contains 19 songs -- 15 selections from his solo albums, two new originals, and a medley of Pink Floyd's "Lucifer Sam" and Neil Young's "Like A Hurricane." There's also a swell bonus DVD included, but Farrar's work, while better experienced live, certainly doesn't depend upon visuals for impact.
No, watching Farrar is more like watching a writer at work. There's the odd head nod, the occasional wink to passersby, but all the real expression is turned inward, back towards the source. Which is fitting. As Stone shows, Farrar's still writing circles around most of his contemporaries.
Track to Burn: "Damn Shame"
Grade: B+--Timothy C. Davis
Throughout his career, Graham Parker has been dogged by endless though well-earned comparisons to his pub rock contemporaries Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello. With Lowe and Costello these days mining the great American songbook, Parker has chosen instead to release, at least according to press releases, a country record. Of course, one needs to keep in mind that despite arrangements that include pedal steel and a duet with Lucinda Williams ("Cruel Lips"), the country referenced in this record is very much England.
Nevertheless, when Parker embraces his pure pop sensibilities, his songs are clever and catchy. "Nation of Shopkeepers" is a breezy tale of an Englishman trying to reconcile to life in the States, told through a barrage of British slang. "Almost Thanksgiving Day" is a hauntingly sad holiday song reminiscent of Dave Alvin's "4th of July."
It's when Parker attempts to capture rural American life that he falls flat. Songs like "Fairground," "Tornado Alley" and an almost but not quite rockabilly re-make of his "Crawling from the Wreckage," seem labored (or is that laboured?). At its worst Your Country is middling bar band alt-country but at its best it's beautifully melancholic jangle pop. Thankfully, there's more of the latter.
Track to Burn: "Nation of Shopkeepers"
Grade: B+--Tara E. Flanagan