Skyscraper Magazine » 2011 » June
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On the heels of Skyscraper’s relaunch, we’ve been reviewing a number of records from mid-to-late 2010 that we missed out on covering during our semi-hiatus. Sort of a “what we missed” series of reviews, emphasizing both some of the best releases of 2010 and some of the year’s most interesting but overlooked records. This is one of those.

Raised by Jungian psychologists who ran a homeless shelter for street gangsters, New Zealand native Tamaryn moved to New York at 18 to pursue her musical ambitions. Ten years later she found herself in San Francisco working as a psychiatrist’s secretary and writing the songs that would become The Waves. Eschewing the wide-eyed psychedelia of her adopted hometown in favor of the monochrome fuzz of British shoegaze, the album is at once ethereal, atmospheric, and hallucinatory. Like grainy 1990s indie rock transported to the vast expanse of the California desert, it’s both oppressive and cinematic in scope. A joint effort with production partner and right-hand man Rex Shelverton, it’s an album drenched in husky vocals and reverb-laden guitars.

Having met in 2000 when Shelverton was a member of Sub Pop outfit Vue, the duo only began working together in 2008, upon Tamaryn’s relocation to the West Coast from NYC. Very specific about how they record, the pair are in thrall to albums exploring a singular thought, with Slowdive’s Souvlaki (Creation, 1993) and Victoria Land (4AD, 1986) by Cocteau Twins cited as major influences. Built around a Fender Twin, a guitar, and some space echo, The Waves is an icy blast of brooding nu-gaze. Opener and title track “The Waves” is a haunting slice of tripped-out indie-pysch with a doom-laden chorus dealing with drowning. The antithesis of the smiley surf-pop of the early 1960s, it’s the sound of a much darker side of the Sunshine State.

Death, heartache, and mental illness are themes dominating the album. Closing track “Mild Confusion” is a diagnosis Tamaryn found in a file at work. It’s triggered by head trauma and can be a precursor to dementia; not the subject matter of your run-of-the-mill pop album. Thankfully, it’s not all doom and gloom. Shelverton’s achingly beautiful production adds lightness to Tamaryn’s lyrics. An enthralling album that stands above the swathes of contemporary shoegaze copyists, The Waves is an extraordinary debut. Just don’t expect it to cheer you up.

First-time readers of Jim Woodring’s work are going to find this work refreshing. There’s no text at all in his new book, Congress of the Animals, which is out now from Fantagraphics. Still, one “reads” the book (and Woodring’s others) as closely as any graphic novel — there’s just more emphasis on the “graphic.” Woodring himself calls it a “symbolic visual language.” He can tell a story fully without any words on the page. The images inform and instruct the reader’s understanding and experience. In fact, Congress of the Animals is a more straightforward comic than most else out there these days; maybe that’s due in part to Woodring’s past work in animation. Some panels transition so fluidly that it can almost feel as though you’re being led by the hand. Of course, that’s not such a bad thing when trying to make sense of Woodring’s world. Or, more accurately, his character Frank’s world.

Readers familiar with Woodring and his art likely already know of Frank from past books and collected volumes. The character brings to mind Felix the Cat and is often cited as being reminiscent of early American animated shorts, like those from Fleischer Studios. The character is described by Woodring as a “generic anthropomorph.” His world, called “the Unifactor,” is both dreamlike and nightmarish, and it is  an environment rife with surrealist imagery. The cartoonish landscapes of the Unifactor are dotted with odd crevices, craggy mountains, and houses topped with onion domes reminiscent of Russian architecture. Like most all of Woodring’s work, the book’s completely in black-and-white, meticulously drawn with his trademark wavy lines.

Just as with the wordlessness of the story, the art itself might be a departure for first-time readers  — especially those used to just the output of the industry’s two main publishers (and even most indie presses). Woodring’s unique style quickly becomes familiar, though. He’s so methodic and cohesive in his presentation that one quickly gets the feel for Frank and the Unifactor, with all it’s squiggly-shaped creatures and other oddities.

It’s tempting to call Congress of the Animals a continued adventure forFrank, but there’s little apparent continuity or chronology in the Unifactor. Characters get maimed, torn apart, and killed all the time, and then return unscathed in later episodes. It’s a little like The Itchy & Scratchy Show in that way, or The Simpsons itself. Or any of a dozen different cartoons. For that reason, having never read any of Woodring’s previous Frank stories shouldn’t deter people from picking up this new book.

Frank actually escapes the Unifactor in Congress of the Animals. His adventure’s almost wholly happenstance, bringing to mind everything from Voltaire’s Candide to the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man. Situations thrust themselves upon the character, and the story focuses on how Frank reacts. Early on, the situations start off relatively mundane and everyday. In that way, a lot of what happens in Congress of the Animals is easy to relate to, despite the Unifactor being so otherworldly. Things quickly get surreal though, as the following synopsis details. Fantagraphics posted this description of the book online when announcing a short book tour that Woodring embarked upon earlier this month:

In Congress of the Animals we are treated to the pitiful spectacle of Woodring’s signature protagonist Frank losing his house, taking a factory job, falling in with bad company, fleeing the results of sabotage, escaping in an amusement park ride, surviving a catastrophe at sea, traveling across hostile terrain toward a massive temple seemingly built in his image, being treated roughly by gut-faced men and intervening in an age-old battle in a meadow slathered in black and yellow blood. We trust the artist’s book tour will be more sedate.

What’s interesting is how helpful even a short few sentences (like those above) can be in decoding Woodring’s book. While the story itself is completely wordless, the book’s back cover description serves as almost a guide to Frank’s adventure. Woodring’s not easy in offering up text as clues though, filling the page with phrases like: “The moral erosion associated with passively profiting from the misfortune of others” and “The curse that befalls those unwilling to adhere to the regimes intended for them.”

Give the back cover a full read before cracking the book open, then again after finishing the graphic novel. Then dive back into the book. That’s how I processed it. Woodring’s someone whose work demands repeated reads. For longtime fans, Congress of the Animals is another puzzle piece in Woodring’s complicated world of art. For newcomers, it’s likely going to be the first enjoyable step of discovering that world and Woodring’s back catalogue.

As remarkable as it is, there’re more than just a couple performers from the auld tyme Def Jux roster still kicking around and releasing reputable music. And despite what you may have read elsewhere, Vast Aire is one of those performers, even if OX 2010: A Street Odyssey isn’t bound to pull in too many new listeners or convince long time fans of any enduring greatness.

Forming Cannibal Ox along with Vordul Mega back during the late 1990s, Vast Aire and his associate found like-minded and similarly menacing producer El-P. Issuing The Cold Vein (Definitive Jux) in 2001 made CanOx one of a few groups capable of creating a singular atmosphere over the length of a long-playing album – Latyrx perhaps edging out the New York crew by a bit. Of course, Oxtrumentals (Definitive Jux, 2002) goes a long way to proving El-P was as important in creating the monolithic record as its vocal stars. But with that combination at work, there was an overtly aggressive tone, probably puttng some people off.

Working as a solo act for most of the last decade, Vast Aire’s gone and staked out a corner in the underground’s always shifting market. Not unlike Lyrics Born, the guy just hasn’t released anything as unique as he did with his earlier group. Linking up with the Fat Beats label wasn’t a bad idea, but Vast Aire assimilating any number of new fangled aural compliments might have been. “Almighty” suffers as a result, even while the rapper extends a relatively memorable chorus. “2090 (So Grimmy)” doesn’t get any better.

A bit further on, Guilty Simpson guests on “The Verdict.” And while the hook that Vast Aire half-sings gets problematic, the production recalls The Cold Vein with its digital bounce. What’s most frustrating about a solid effort from a veteran with Vast Aire’s lineage is that, as hard as he tries, there’s really no way the performer can summon the same general ambiance informing that earlier, career-making release. Vast Aire certainly doesn’t embarrass himself, but when another MC turns in the most memorable vocal performance on a disc, something’s missing. “The Cannon Of Samus,” which features a confident and evil sounding Kenyattah Black, only runs through the requisite lauding of verbal skills, but does so in such a convincing manner, and alongside a phenomenally creepy production, that it warrants proper notice.

Really, what the utility of OX 2010: A Street Odyssey comes down to is whether or not after purchasing this monster it’s gonna get more than a few plays. And it probably won’t. Maybe a track or two is capable of catching a listener’s ear, but there’s really no call for return listens. “I Don’t Care” kinda rules, but unfortunately sports a lesser Wu affiliate. Bummer.

Hey there TPLers: The weather is getting warmer and things are getting altogether more pleasant around the greater metropolitan NYC area, so naturally the progression is to spend more and more time indoors listening to misanthropic yuk purveyors. Let’s see what the comedy tides have washed upon our shores of late, shall we?

First, and certainly foremost for this installment of The Punch Line, is the return of the great NORM MACDONALD [pictured left]. After a pretty long time in the cold, save for a brilliant run of appearances on the Conan-helmed The Tonight Show and a cameo in the last Adam Sandler summer blockbuster, MacDonald is back in the public eye with a new sports show in the vein of SNL’s Weekend Update called Sports Show With Norm MacDonald on Comedy Central. As you might surmise, Sports Show is pretty great. Hopefully the masses and the Comedy Central powers that be feel the same way and it’s renewed for a second season. To heighten the anticipation for Sports Show and educate the ignorant Dane Cook loving masses, Comedy Central aired a new Norm stand-up special called Me Doing Standup (albeit in the middle of a green initiative that urged people to turn off their TVs) to much acclaim, and have now blessed us with CD and expanded DVD versions of same. The Me Doing Standup set as it appeared on Comedy Central is top notch in CD form, but the real awesomeness is in the extended material on the DVD, which adds some ace bonus material and the classic gay pride bit he’s been doing for awhile now. The DVD extra features include Back To Norm, the comedy pilot he did for Comedy Central a couple years ago, and an animated short, as well as his stellar performance at the Bob Saget roast. All of which make the DVD of Me Doing Standup a must-own. Check out the weekly Sports Show on Comedy Central and know that the Norm MacDonald Twitter presence is formidable, expanding exponentially in the wake of his live Tweeting the Oscars. It’s good to have the great one back.

As promised in our last entry, we have a couple of new releases this month from the good people at Rooftop Comedy Productions. First up is the debut from COLLIN MOULTON. Evidently, he’s big with the college set, which may account for the resounding “meh” that Chicken, Stupid invokes in this guy. Think an edgier Orny Adams, maybe. Not terribly difficult, I know. Moulton has okay material, but Chicken, Stupid opens with a bit about his most awkward garage sale moment and continues with the everyman humor for the duration with jokes about Oprah, smoking pot with his Mom, gay uncles, and guy stuff. Not horrible, but also nothing I would go out of my way to check out. You may feel differently. Chicken, Stupid seems like a better option for the Christian Finnegan or Christopher Titus fans out there. As Rooftop Comedy guys go, I’m much more in favor of JOE LIST and his new record So Far No Good. Like Nick DiPaolo and the great Bill Burr, List is a Masshole of high order and comes highly recommended to fans of that ilk. List has been DiPaolo’s live opener of choice for a bit now and you can see why with the sensitive bits digitized herein. Alcoholic overindulgence, roommates, and relations with the opposite sex are covered, and he’s good with the crowd work, too. We’ll definitely be hearing a lot more from List in the future.

In other news from Team Masshole, AZ transplant DOUG STANHOPE [pictured top] has returned with a new CD/DVD set called Oslo: Burning the Bridge To Nowhere. In a curious move from our hero, the recording is the debut release from the new comedy arm of metal bastion Roadrunner Records, Roadrunner Comedy. Recorded in perhaps the most ideal of comedy venues, that being a former Nazi bunker and sewing machine factory in Norway, Burning the Bridge To Nowhere is the eighth live record and fourth DVD in the Stanhope canon. Those familiar with Stanhope can rest assured that the usual sex, drug, and political topics are covered, but Oslo is ultimately a little hit or miss. Don’t get it twisted, it’s better than 90% of the comedy out today, but evidently Stanhope was only given 36 hours to prepare for the recording, purportedly in an attempt to capture the spontaneity of his live show. Lack of prep aside, there is also the small matter of English not being the crowd’s native tongue and the pricey cost of alcohol, a necessary elixir in invoking the Stanhope muse and one that has garnered him quite a death rattle in his cough. Oslo is a decent showing from Stanhope, but one might do well to catch him soon, before his heart, lungs, and/or liver fail.

For those of you that like your comedy a little less confrontational, or perhaps even spawned from the Broadway stage, there is the new MIKE BIRBIGLIA album Sleepwalk With Me: Live. Birbiglia [pictured above] has a new set called My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend and isn’t doing the Sleepwalk material anymore, so this would appear to be your last chance is to grab Sleepwalk With Me. Covering the end of Birbiglia’s last long-term relationship, the perils of sleepwalking, and meeting the woman who is now his wife, Sleepwalk is pretty funny, albeit a little more middle of the road than I usually prefer. Birbiglia is working with NPR personality Ira Glass on a screenplay adaptation of this book/play and it’s pretty apropos. Sleepwalk With Me: Live is a fine good go-to for those that claim to be comedy fans but also sport more delicate sensibilities.

Those sensitive types might do well to avoid the offerings we have from the ladies this time around. NATASHA LEGGERO has parleyed her appearances on Chelsea Lately and Last Comic Standing into her first CD for Comedy Central, called Coke Money. Chelsea Lately has been quite the springboard for female comedians of Leggero’s ilk, namely the new school of Whitney Cummings-esque attractive comedians that skew the ugly comedian paradigm. Leggero covers her attractiveness, dating, reality TV, and the women’s movement on Coke Money and does pretty well. We’ll be seeing more of her. Last Comic Standing competitor AMY SCHUMER [pictured left] also has her debut comedy record out this month courtesy of Comedy Central, in between hosting the new show that Mark Hoppus of Blink 182 has, Hoppus On Music, and guesting on Curb Your Enthusiasm. Cutting is pretty crass (again, never a bad thing); Schumer doesn’t play the hot girl thing so much, opting more for masturbation and racial stuff, plus some great off-the-cuff baby naming material. I’d give her the edge on Leggero by a small margin, but both these Comedy Central releases are well worth checking out.

Musical comedy is a slippery slope for me, but even the hater in me can’t front on the new THE LONELY ISLAND CD Turtleneck and Chain. It’s got all of your recent SNL Digital Shorts favorites like “The Creep” with Nicki Minaj and “The Shy Ronnie” stuff with Rhianna. “Trouble On Dookie Island” and most of the interstitial skits prove that Turtleneck & Chain isn’t all gold, but The Lonely Island deserve props for keeping SNL afloat and musical comedy almost relevant in its 36th Year. It fares much better than the recent release from Rhino Handmade that makes available the long-shelved recordings which comedy collective THE STATE made for Warner Bros in 1996. Recorded at Compass Point in the Bahamas, Comedy For Gracious Living is skit comedy in the tradition of The Firesign Theater and National Lampoon, with pronouncedly less humorous results. State obsessives may be excited, but I can see why this has lain dormant for so long. Indie rock obscurists may be excited at the Cake Like-esque Kerri Kenney track, but there is little here on par with the best of The State.

That’s my time, but tune in next time for word on the new Tig Notero and Jen Kirkman records. Tip the staff.

So, the meta media circus has reached its pinnacle, now allowing only for inferior concepts to be levied on the listening public. There’ve been a handful of gangster-related releases seeking intellectual elevation of late. After gettin’ outta the clink, Mobb Deep’s Prodigy unloosed the stinker Ellsworth ‘Bumpy’ Johnson EP. If the album’s namesake was still kicking around, he’d surely pay for someone’s murder after hearing that abomination. Crushed Velvet & The Velveteers doesn’t warrant violence, but the effort put into creating some sort of narrative behind the album’s release could have been put to better use – like making the music more immediately engaging.

Supposedly, The Big One was a film completed back during the 1970s when America realized black folks buy movie tickets and constitute a significant market unto themselves. The film was accidentally destroyed and it’s director went into hiding as a result of police and governmental harassment. Of course, all the shadowy video-interviews in the world shouldn’t convince potential listeners of the story’s veracity, but it’s not beyond the realm of possibility. And while the movie remains lost to time, it’s soundtrack recorded by Crushed Velvet & The Velveteers was shuttled off to Alan Evans, Soulive’s drummer and the producer behind the disc’s reissue.

Evans and his group Soulive have been responsible for some of the better realized new soul-jazz, taking the organ trio format to the hippie masses during the latter portion of the 1990s and into the new millennium. While appreciated by the granola eating, sandal wearing crowd, Soulive wasn’t really embraced by snooty indie culture, even as the group could be understood as harbingers of all that Daptone success. Evans, who could be assumed guitarist in the Velveteers, now issues The Big One as an historical document, showing off Buffalo’s fictinoal funk and soul scene.

Over the disc’s 40-minute run time, which actually doesn’t feel like a soundtrack at all with song lengths pushing into the five minute mark on a regular basis, whoever the band comprises dishes out market grade grooves without so much as a misstep. Some might take issue with the vocal on “Felecia’s Love Theme” getting a bit too Philly-styled. But apart from that, the Velveteers prove themselves an amply funky unit. Regardless of how convincing this endeavor appears, picking up any of Soulive’s early-Blue Note releases might do a bit better, come off less contrived, and be more interesting than a psuedo-theatrical soundtrack.

Eden Pearlstein may be a new name to some in the world of hip-hop, but he’s not new to the genre. Known better as Eprhyme, he has been rocking stages and making music with a keen sense of who he is for over a decade, proselytizing what hip-hop should and can represent, all while not putting his Jewish faith on the side.  In fact, his faith is his musical and spiritual core, and like many who take on the same path, one can never be too far from the other. While some listeners may be put off by someone delivering scripture or beliefs over beats, Eprhyme has never been like that, or at least it has never come off as something other than an important element of his being. With Dopestylevsky, hip-hop fans are hearing someone who continues to develop as an artist and an individual, but who has done so with the confidence that the path he has taken is one chosen wisely.

Here’s what Dopestylevsky is not: an album that falls into the traps of what the industry tries to turn hip-hop into.  If there are any facades on this music, Eprhyme is there to say it’s time for you to peel and reveal your true self.  Lyrically, he can be very much about the party rhymes, and when I say that I mean the old school, basement jam rhymes, not ones where you are relevant because of what liquor you’re drinking. There’s a richness in what this MC writes and rhymes, and as with some of the best rappers out there, there’s a venom in what he says that is truly remarkable. Okay, maybe venom might be interpreted as something evil or sinister, so let me say that Eprhyme chooses his words like a scientist who knows the formula, but hopes by offering more input he’ll reveal things that get closer to the heart of that which he speaks.  What he speaks of part of the time is being true to one’s self and another, because anything else isn’t worthy.

Those who read the last paragraph are probably thinking, “Damn, this Eprhyme has an ego on him,” or, “Still sounds way too heady for me, as if he’s holier than thou,” and that’s far from what I hear. What Eprhyme does is not any different from some of the golden era MCs who shared their personal beliefs mixed in with cleverness and humor. Eprhyme is not a comedic rapper but some elements of his songs, such as “Notes From The Underground,”  “Grind Thoroughly,” and “Lose Your Cool,” are examples of someone who is willing to let his guard down a bit without being perceived as being overly serious. In “Life Sentence,” when he says, “From cannabis to amethyst, calculus to manuscripts / Welcome to the garden where divine inspired madness lives,” you can sense he’s speaking of the garden of a mind, which leads to him revealing, “I am a pacifist trapped in the mind of a masochist.” A bit of the yin-yang that is a lot more global than anything the Ying Yang Twins ever admitted in their music. This self-proclaimed not-average kid is reciprocal in that while he has learned from the book of life and experience, he in turn is teaching or at least telling listeners his own stories and how they can lead people to a place they can call their own, whatever that may mean to them. In other words, Eprhyme isn’t the king or monarch of any territory, just a mere messenger who is more than happy to offer a healthy exchange of thoughts through his music.

As for the production, some of these tracks could easily be mixed in with tracks by Diplo, Pitbull, and Lykke Li, alongside the works of DJ Premier, Pete Rock, and Chief Xcel. I enjoy hearing someone who enjoys the music they drop rhymes on, and not doing it because it would be an opportunity to be heard within established formulas. There’s that word again: formula. Perhaps I should use it one more time to make a point. Infants are sometimes given formulas as a means of important nourishment, and Eprhyme offers some much needed nourishment of the mind, body, and soul with Dopestylevsky. Or maybe this album is a cleansing that hip-hop across the board needs, or at least that section of hip-hop that continues to suffocate itself in the club. Eprhyme is a nice breath of clarity that isn’t the exception to any specific rule, just hip-hop music at its best.

Dustin O’Halloran, a self-taught, globetrotting American pianist, has been a rock musician, a film scorer, and a conceptual experimentalist. Like Johnny Greenwood and The National’s Bryce Dessner, O’Halloran stands among the ranks of what could be only somewhat inappropriately called the “post-classical” movement – multi-tasking musicians from unorthodox backgrounds writing polyglot orchestral music. You can hear much of O’Halloran’s varied background in Lumiere, which expands upon the limited palette of his previous solo-piano releases, with strings courtesy of New York’s ACME Quartet and indie-rock violinist of choice Owen Pallett. With the additional help, O’Halloran has jacked up his delicately precise style, adding narrative sweep and strong emotive flow to his compositions. For the most part, they bear the extra weight well.

As a pianist, O’Halloran favors lacy, minor-key melodic runs developed in one of two ways: fast or slow. The opening track,A Great Divide,” is one of the latter and it’s a stunner. Arriving with a modulated drone using layers of sustained tones and echo-laden chimes, the composition gently but inexorably builds into a modestly devastating duet of string/piano melancholia. The faster stuff bears the same bittersweet hue but seems more nakedly direct in its attempt to bewitch. “We Move Lightly” picks a simple high-register motif and sticks with it for the next three minutes, leaving some cannily chosen strings and faint backstage dissonance to provide the drama. It’s a resourceful tactic, and listeners more familiar with Explosions In the Sky and Mogwai than Gavin Bryars or Philip Glass will deem it successful. Less rock-oriented ears may find it a bit unsubstantial.

Lumiere fittingly suggests a world of dimly illuminated shadows, a magic-lantern theater of flickering shapes and transitory mirage. “Opus 43” is as meditative and hesitant as “We Move Lightly” is assuredly coy, as if O’Halloran were tracing the outline of melody or slowly watching it take shape inside a photographic dark room. When the strings kick in, O’Halloran’s by now trademark romantic halo seems organic and earned, instead of merely forced. The pianist is clearly concerned with the way a defined space can replicate, isolate and distort sound, and his songs work best when he allows a thrum of dissonance to add grit to their wistfulness.

Vorleben, a live album recorded in a Berlin church, captures all the creaks and rustles of an audience seated on hard, Reformation-era pews as well as the incidental noise of a large, open space and towering ceilings. This incidental contamination roughs up the edges of his sometimes too-pretty solo piano work, providing a charged, potent setting that even the fuller orchestration of Lumiere has a hard time matching.

If you pay any attention to the the UK music press then you’ll know that 2011 is being billed as the Return Of the Guitar Band. In reality, they never went away. Case in point: for the best part of a decade, British Sea Power have been forging some of the finest six string sounds of this, or any other, era. While the mainstream continues to wet itself over The Vaccines’ debut (which, lets face it, was never going to live up to expectation), this Brighton-based sextet have quietly released an early contender for album of the year with the sublime Valhalla Dancehall. Written and recorded in an English country farmhouse and on Scotland’s Isle Of Skye, the album title and cover art are red herrings. This certainly isn’t the world’s first Viking reggae album. What it is, though, is an exquisitely crafted example of leftfield British power-pop.

Drawing inspiration from indie, prog, rock’n’roll, and glam, British Sea Power’s songs take an Orwellian view of the world, trying to expose it for the crazy place it is. Album opener “Who’s In Control?” is a stinging dig at the state of the UK in the post-credit crunch era; not the sort of song you’d catch London’s young C86 revivalists writing. British Sea Power, though, have always been a band apart. Emerging as part of the post-Libertines art-rock explosion of the early noughties, they’re an eccentric bunch that operate very much on their own terms – something that has no doubt played a significant role in their longevity. British Sea Power don’t play by the usual rules of rock. They’re intelligent and literate, with a wry sense of humor that pervades both their lyrics and style.

An album as diverse as we’ve come to expect, Valhalla Dancehall references Bowie, Oasis, and everything in between. Second track “We Are Sound” layers chiming guitars over pounding Joy Division drums before the stunning “Georgie Ray” blurs “Life On Mars” with the epic balladry of Noel Gallagher in his pomp. “Stunde Null” is thumping art-rock in the mould of Franz Ferdinand. Its title means “year zero” and was used to describe post-war Germany in a positive way. A deliberate Krautrock reference, it is further evidence of a band operating outside the confines of what’s in fashion. The album’s shortest track, “Thin Black Sail” sounds like a bunch of English art-school geeks trying to cover Black Flag.

A near-perfect slice of contemporary Britrock, Valhalla Dancehall reveals a band operating inside a similar universe to that occupied by Pink Floyd and Radiohead. Eight years after the release of their debut, The Decline Of British Sea Power (Rough Trade, 2003), the band remain at the vanguard of UK guitar music. Pushing the boundaries at a time when new groups are simply retreading the past, who needs this resurrection anyway?

At the time it was released, I thought 1991’s Screamadelica was the album The Stone Roses should have made as a follow-up to their hugely influential self-titled 1989 debut. While the Roses got bogged down in label hassles for years and didn’t release the disappointing and very trad-rock sounding Second Coming until late 1994, Primal Scream took the ball and ran with it, issuing one of the definitive British rock albums of the decade. In hindsight, The Stone Roses couldn’t have pulled off Screamadelica. The Manchester lads were loved by the then-exploding UK acid house scene because they made rock music that appealed to dance kids, however their records were still quite conventional next to Bobby Gillespie and company’s Screamadelica. Quite simply, Screamadelica is a joyous celebration of music, merging elements of classic rock’n’roll, psychedelia, house, dub, and even jazz into a landmark work of art which still sounds relevant and timeless two decades later.

Primal Scream did not always sound this way, though. Their early singles and first two albums, Sonic Flower Groove (Warner UK, 1987) and Primal Scream (Creation, 1989), owe more than a little to the likes of The Byrds, Love, and 1960s-era Rolling Stones, with a touch of the MC5 on the latter release.  Their press photos were equally retro, the band decked out in flowery shirts, pointed boots, and shaggy hair. At the time it seemed almost laughable that they would someday create a landmark fusion album. Perhaps because of this, there is an almost Year Zero mythology attached to the group, implying it all began with Screamadelica (for example, their 2007 best-of compilation, Dirty Hits, contains nothing from the band’s late-1980s “indie” era). Early on, Primal Scream vocalist Bobby Gillespie was actually more famous for being the first drummer in the Jesus and Mary Chain. He played a minimalist drum kit, Mo Tucker style, and like the rest of the band looked badass in black leather and shades.

It’s important that this early history gets mentioned because, if it weren’t for a soulful mid-tempo ballad on Primal Scream entitled “I’m Losing More Than I’ll Ever Have,” Screamadelica may have never happened. Around 1988, the band had become enamored of rave culture and befriended DJ Andrew Weatherall. David Cavanagh notes in his excellent 2001 book The Creation Records Story (Virgin), it was Scream guitarist Andrew Innes who asked Weatherall to remix “I’m Losing” and “make it suitable for dancing to.” Of course, this would evolve into the February 1990 single “Loaded,” as Weatherall would keep the song’s basic instrumentation but pump it up with some “Sympathy For The Devil”-like beats and famously sample Peter Fonda from the 1966 biker flick The Wild Angels: “We wanna be free, to do what we want to do, and we want to get loaded, and we want to have a good time …”

This 20th anniversary edition of Screamadelica is available in several formats (all are UK imports). This review is highlighting the two-CD “20th Anniversary Deluxe Edition” set, which includes the post-album Dixie Narco EP on the bonus disc. However, the reissue is also available on vinyl, as well as in a “Limited Collector’s Edition” box set that features four CDs, a DVD, a gatefold double-LP, a 50-page book, a t-shirt, and other swag. Nevertheless, in all formats, the original 1991 album, remastered here by Kevin Shields, opens with “Movin’ On Up,” which can only be described as the best Rolling Stones song since say the mid-1970s. It was even produced by the legendary Jimmy Miller, who worked with the Stones from Beggars Banquet (1968) through Goat’s Head Soup (1973), and features all of that band’s signature weapons from the era; piano, scuzzy guitars, and amazing gospel backing vocals straight outta’ “Gimme Shelter.” The party continues on with a mesmerizing cover of The 13th Floor Elevators’ psychedelic wig out “Slip Inside This House,” which had previously been included on the 1990 Roky Erickson tribute album Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye. The Scream version, which includes a James Brown sample, is quite different to the freak folk vibe of the original, as the heavy beats turn the song into a dance floor anthem, even out stepping the likes of The Happy Mondays’ “Step On.”  “Don’t Fight It, Feel It” is full-on dance music with sometime Primal Scream contributor Denise Johnson taking over the lead vocals.  I remember a review back in the day describing “Don’t Fight It” as a collision between the MC5 and Italian disco, the analogy still seeming apt today.  “Higher Than the Sun” is a much-needed chill out break after the rousing opening tracks. When first released, Creation label boss Alan McGee described the song as the most important British single since The Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy In the UK.” And while McGee was always prone to hyperbole, “Higher” is one of the definitive tracks of the era, featuring a space rock atmosphere while Gillespie seems to describe an Ecstasy trip: “I drift in inner space, free of time / I find a higher state of grace in my mind / I’m beautiful, I wasn’t born to follow / I live just for today, don’t care about tomorrow.” “Inner Flight” is just that, a mellow instrumental break that sets the scene for the album’s centerpiece, “Come Together.”

“Come Together” is, simply put, a 10-minute-plus juggernaut and one of Weatherall’s greatest arrangements, featuring extensive samples from a 1972 speech by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, including this powerful snippet, which nails down the message of Screamadelica: “Today on this program you will hear gospel. And rhythm. And blues. And jazz … we know that music is music.” Johnson’s amazing vocals keep time as she repeats “Come together as one,” while the Scream stay in tune with a fantastic instrumental arrangement reminiscent of Stax Records’ best sound. The aforementioned “Loaded” follows and, by this time, listeners should be thoroughly floored.

If the first half of Screamadelica is the party, then the latter half is the come down. Once again Jimmy Miller is employed to work his magic on “Damaged,” a bluesy piano-based ballad which could easily be an outtake from Exile On Main Street, as Gillespie steals the show with one of his best performances ever. Breathtaking. Next up is the even more mellow “I’m Coming Down,” aping a minimalist jazz arrangement that all but carries Gillespie away into space. This morphs into The Orb’s total dub deconstruction of “Higher Than the Sun,” with “Shine Like Stars” closing things out. Similar to “I’m Coming Down,” the song is almost a lullaby to put the listener to sleep after a heavy night of hedonism.

The Dixie Narco EP is a clue to what would be next for Primal Scream, as the band takes on a Rolling Stones meets southern rock and soul vibe that eventually gained full strength on 1994’s Screamadelica follow-up Give Out But Don’t Give Up (Creation/Sire). Recorded at the famed Ardent Studios in Memphis, this four-song collection opens with “Movin’ On Up” and also includes a first-rate country blues number “Stone My Soul,” a heartfelt cover of Dennis Wilson’s “Carry Me Home,” and the 1970s-flavored “Screamadelica,” which again employs the talented Denise Johnson on lead vocals.

Organizing the history of any music winds up being a Sisyphean task. Regardless of research, supporting evidence, and a wealth of first hand interviews, there’s bound to be dissent regarding any author’s supreme thesis. Benjamin Piekut, who obtained an advanced degree in musicology from Columbia University after studying music composition with the likes of Pauline Oliveros, attempts to hem up New York’s musical avant-garde dating back to the 1950s, when John Cage still seemed like an exciting guy to listen to. The composer’s work has always been more thoughtful than listenable, and Piekut attempts to get at how players involved in performing Cage’s work, specifically the New York Philharmonic as led by Leonard Bernstein, related to a handful of surprisingly soldered together concepts. Using 1964 as its scaffolding, Experimentalism Otherwise: The New York Avant-Garde and Its Limits crafts a surprisingly strong narrative of a few specific events, including Cage’s problematic relationship with established pools of orchestral players, to distil a significant epoch in American music. Tossing in figures like Bill Dixon, Henry Flynt, and Charlotte Moorman initially gives this new study the appearance of numerous previous histories, but rounding it all out with Iggy Pop, The Stooges, and Ann Arbor’s avant-rock scene broadens the scope of Piekut’s investigation.

Apart from disabusing the music-geek of some incorrect perceptions regarding Flynt’s work – which winds up being the most engaging portion of the book – it is revelatory how Piekut takes into account political, philosophical, and musical concerns, explaining the banjoist’s relation to La Monte Young and a few Velvets. Following the North Carolina native to the Ivy League, back to the South, and then into civil rights issues creates a surprisingly three-dimensional character in less than a 50-page span.

Examining Cage and Flynt in terms other than those defined simply through music makes for interesting reading, but furthers the white-male dominated history of just about every discipline. Getting into the New Music as initially realized by players associated with jazz takes Piekut into difficult territory, though. White guys dissecting black nationalism rings hollowly for the most part. Saving this writer from missteps is the interesting perspective on what immediately made the Jazz Composers Guild an untenable collective; the various perspectives on race within the group, comprising Paul Bley, his wife Carla, and a few other white folks. Differentiating between white academic color-blindness and a Marcus Garvey styled black separatism turned an interesting corner. And while Carla Bley is portrayed as a creative and valiant figure in the music, Piekut’s evaluation of Charlotte Moorman becomes difficult.

Whether or not the author enjoys Moorman’s work – with or without Naim Jun Paik as collaborator – shouldn’t be available in an academic work of this nature. And while Moorman clearly troubled Cage when performing his compositions, Piekut doesn’t relay anything too complementary about a performer who, in some ways, was a rigorous feminist. Granted, Piekut’s perspective on the liberated women deepening trenches of gender divides arrives as a commendable concept. His clear distaste for Moorman, her cello, and an apparent inability to render Cage’s compositions in reputable fashion unfortunately shuffles close to gender bias.

With all the intriguing sussing out of the avant-garde’s difficulty wrangling a blue collar audience, the political bit falls away by the time readers arrive in Ann Arbor to witness the Stooges’ emergence in the wake of the ONCE Festival. Iggy Pop may not have ever appeared so intelligent in print. Even if that wasn’t the case, how many other screeds on modern composition end in a discussion of “I Wanna Be Your Dog?”