How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb
Thanks to the fact that some major labels send us their "big" albums on the national release date instead of providing the "advanced servicing" given to Spin and the New York Times, I've had the chance to see U2's new How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb reviewed in a number of different publications. At least two of these opined that Bomb is the greatest U2 album to date.
And so, with high hopes, I put the record on. I immediately hear the Edge dig back into his bag of tricks and bring back the chiming, robot-strummed licks he's become famous for. I hear Larry Mullen Jr. and Adam Clayton hold it down with the same Zip-loc tightness they've always shown. I hear Bono's voice ring out above the whole maelstrom with the same strength he's evidenced since Boy.
What I don't hear is anything I wasn't already expecting. True, the album is a return to the guitar-driven sound of All That You Can't Leave Behind, which broke from more experimental outings like Zooropa and Pop for the greener pastures of pop stardom. But, like a formulaic genre novel, you can pretty much tell when this Bomb's gonna explode -- about two-thirds of the way through any given song.
That said, it does get better with repeated listens. Songs like "City of Blinding Lights" and "A Man and a Woman" are the kind of topography-map-of-the-soul love songs Mr. Vox has gotten so good at churning out recently. The political tunes -- "Yahweh," "Love and Peace or Else" -- sound only slightly forced, thanks to the band's now-legendary "conviction." "Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own" is an "Everybody Hurts" for the new century.
Bomb is much like a late-period work from any other art form: there's still some fire there, but the flames don't burn quite as brightly or as brilliantly as they once did. However, the fact that these Irish 40-somethings can still stir the coals ought to be heartwarming enough for radio rock fans.
Track to burn: "Sometimes You Can't Make it on Your Own"
--Timothy C. Davis
Badman Recording Co.
Lanterna is the muse of Henry Frayne (guitar and voice) who played in the 80s with Area and in the 90s with Moon Seven Times. On Highways, Frayne manages to avoid derivative repetition while using the technique to weave gentle dream-pop with the help of Eric Gebow (drums) and Mike Brosco (tape effects). The result is, in essence, driving music, with tracks like "Canyons," "Brooklyn," and "Clear Blue" signaling the individual moods. This is a guitar record, which at times sounds like The Edge or Robert Fripp, depending on Frayne's picking. The playing is fluid but a little too structured at times. Frayne is not interested in building tension through repetition; rather he wants to unravel notions and inhibitions, as one would naturally roll down the windows on a carefree spring day drive. There are tracks that invariably stumble on their own sameness, but if tranquil journeys are what you seek, then Highways has plenty of them. Few words are spoken, yet in the end this is about moody, self-inflicted loneliness with the uplift of "Brightness" and the solemnity of "Half-Light" tipping the balance. Highways just could be the soundtrack for that yet unmade film. You reading this, David Lynch?
Track to burn: "Half-Light"
Trust Not In Whom Without Some Touch of Madness
During nearly 25 years under the mainstream radar, Thalia Zedek has always delivered passionate music, whether fronting critically acclaimed bands like Uzi, Live Skull and (most notably) Come, or as a solo artist since 2001. Whatever the format, Zedek leaves her mark on a listener.
This record, her second full length, got its intriguing title courtesy of a poorly translated fortune cookie Zedek opened. Despite the happenstance, it's a most apropos title; her songs have always eschewed traditional construction for their own logic that, after repeat listens, winds up making even more sense.
The skeletal instrumentation - Zedek, her guitar, Daniel Coughlin's percussion, the ubiquitous viola/cello of David Michael Curry (Willard Grant Conspiracy), and cameos from piano and pedal steel - is belied by the power Zedek and cohorts generate. Rousing crescendos highlight almost all of the 11 songs, and though there are elements of blues, country and folk throughout, Zedek's songwriting and soul-baring lyrics make these songs unquestionably her own. In this respect, she is a musical soulmate of Richard Buckner (an aesthetic comparison many have made); both can turn the darkest, heaviest subject matter into compellingly transcendent music. At a quarter-century and counting, Zedek only seems to be getting better.
Track to burn: "Evil Hand"
Mark Sandman & Morphine
While many rockers have lobbied hard for the mantle of rock & roll Rimbaud, Mark Sandman simply lived it. Like the revolutionary French writer, Sandman basically created his own means of artistic expression - "lo rock,' he dubbed it - that made a virtue of the profane. In short, Sandman walked the walk - right through the 1999 Morphine show in Italy during which he collapsed and died of a heart attack at age 47.
In the five years since then, Sandman's legacy has been, in part, capped by Morphine's disappointing final record, 2000's The Night (file under: Nice Try, Better Luck Next Time). But after years of rumors and false starts, instead we get this marvelous encore, a two-disc, 31-song embarrassment of rare riches culled together by Sandman's two remaining band mates, Dana Colley and Billy Conway (there's also a DVD of Morphine videos and a live show).
There are a few cuts from Sandman's (and Conway's) previous band, Treat Her Right, and even a couple from his Hypnosonics era, which, while by no means poor, are generally a slice in quality below the Morphine material. As for the latter, Sandbox includes plenty of Morphine's slinky, blues-and-jazz-driven, two-string slide-bass/saxophone/drums signature trio sound -- "I Can Do That," "Early Man," "Goddess," and "Some Other Dog" are as good as anything released during Sandman's life.
But the real joy here can be found in the cuts that expand the Morphine mold either via their songwriting or (additional) instrumentation: "Hombre" is a gorgeous, bilingual Marty Robbins-like ride through the desert; "Livin' With You" adds a full horn section done Philly soul style, and "Deep Six"combines a Run DMC-like vibe with sassy female backup singers - these are just a few variations.
Whatever the style change and accents added, Sandman's smoky one-of-a-kind baritone - particularly on the late-night, seductive odes to his lady friends - is perfectly suited for the grown-up themes central to the Morphine experience. The cumulative effect of Sandbox should remind Sandman fans how lucky they are to get this collection, a missive from beyond the grave with which to celebrate a musical life well-lived.
Track to burn: "Hotel Room"
Smithsonian Folkways Recordings
A Grammy-winner at 90, the Chapel Hill, NC-bred Elizabeth "Libba" Cotten has had songs covered by The Dead, Bob Dylan, and Taj Mahal (among countless others). An amazing left-handed fingerstyle guitarist, Cotten's perhaps best known for her songs "Freight Train" and "Shake Sugaree," which have by now assumed the position of American music standards (the former was once cited by Allen Ginsberg as being "poetry on a page").
Shake Sugaree, recorded in 1965 and 1966, is not only damn near musically flawless, but emotionally and sonically stellar to boot, thanks to a loving Smithsonian Folkways restoration job. A few of the 26 songs sound a little half-baked -- the "never before released" bonus cuts, mostly -- but are worth hearing if for no other reason than to hear a female senior citizen absolutely rip on acoustic guitar and banjo.
Cotten passed away in 1987, but these recordings -- made 20 years prior when she was 70 -- show her at her absolute prime, ably melding the songs of her youth with the spirit of the Civil Rights movement and the wisdom of her accumulated years with absolutely no artifice whatsoever.
Looking for the folk and blues release of the year? This writer's picking Cotten.
Track to Burn: "Shake Sugaree"
--Timothy C. Davis