California X: Nights in the Dark

California X‘s 2013 debut garnered quite a few Dinosaur Jr. comparisons, which might explain why they sound more like the Meat Puppets on their sophomore collection. The nine-song Nights in the Dark finds the Amherst, Mass., quartet dialing down the fuzz and traveling to the desert—at least psychically and spiritually—returning with moody instrumentals, darker pyrotechnics, even longer hair, a piano. They worked again with producer Justin Pizzoferrato, who handled the Dinosaur post-reunion albums I Bet on Sky, Farm, and Beyond, but otherwise, they’ve pulled themselves away from Mascis and company and bring to mind the sort of lonesome rock oasis the Kirkwood brothers were so good at locating.

The newfound variety has its appeal, and it illustrates admirable ambition, but the best material is still the stuff that blasts from the garage fast and furious. For instance, Nights opens powerfully with the title track—a pleasantly ambling, but urgent wash of ’90s slacker rock that conjures that old Athens band Five Eight and also brings to mind the more focused work of Milk Music (“focused” meaning only six minutes of tripped out riffing). It’s followed by “Red Planet”, a tighter shock of fist-pumping shout-along power punk. These two songs are more fully formed than the material on the debut, and on first listen, had me ready for a minor masterpiece.

But the momentum stalls with “Ayla’s Song”, a pretty and pretty unnecessary minute and a half of solo guitar tripping. It’s fine and delicate and nice, but functions basically as a buzzkill. California X also add water to the fire with the mid-tempo “Hadley, MA”, a turgid song that features great guitar playing from Lemmy Gurtowsky (per usual) and newer member Zack Brower, but otherwise grinds to a halt amid dopey lyrics and a sleepy chorus.

Much of the album’s second half follows this path: the guitar playing and other instrumentation is excellent, but the songwriting feels like an afterthought. There are a couple of two-part songs here, and both could be halved. “Blackrazor (pt. 1)” creates a sighing psych atmosphere that might be the work any group of stoners with a wall of amplifiers, a sunset, and a heart. The revved-up “Blackrazor (pt. 2)”, on the other hand, is muddier, more anthemic, and showcases the group doing what they do well, unleashing an autumnal SST-era rock haze.

Despite the stumbles, Nights includes some of California X’s best work, and these moments are so strong, it’s impossible to write the band off. This is clearly a transitional collection that sees the group trying new things, and you get the sense that they’ll continue growing into a more mature sound. Especially because they do just that on closer “Summer Wall (pt. 2)”, a gorgeous rocker that opens with “Freak Scene” strumming and hiss then fuses technical prowess and immediate, emotional hooks into a smeary, rollicking anthem. It’s a reminder that sometimes you don’t need to escape your early influences, you just need to approach them from a different direction.

from Album Reviews – Pitchfork

Red Red Meat: There’s a Star Above the Manger Tonight

Chicago’s Red Red Meat, led by Tim Rutili and including members he would carry on into his next band, Califone, were active in the fringes of alternative rock throughout the 1990s. They were one of the few groups that did something different with the basic tools of what was then called grunge. Red Red Meat were on Sub Pop and they toured with hometown friends Smashing Pumpkins, but they were one of those indie bands that never really had a chance at the big time. They were too insular, too weird, they didn’t look very interesting on camera. But they made four fine records and the last of these, 1997’s There’s a Star Above the Manger Tonight, has been lovingly reissued.

This wasn’t Red Red Meat’s best record—that honor goes to its predecessor, 1995’s Bunny Gets Paid, which gets over purely on the strength of its songwriting. Almost every cut on Bunny still sounds like a bent rock classic. Star Above the Manger, on the other hand, is an album about sound, the place where Red Red Meat fully discovered the studio-as-instrument. One of the reasons the music press loved so much of ’90s alternative rock is because it was heard as moving “back to the basics”: loud guitars, heavy drums, and a singer howling in torment. From one angle, it was a conservative movement. Red Red Meat provided an interesting twist on this template with an intent focus on technology. Based in Chicago in the ’90s, Red Red Meat were well aware of what bands in what would eventually come to be called post-rock were doing. The ideas of manipulating a gnarly guitar riff with a computer and snapping beats to a grid were not out of the question. All of those ideas came into full flower on Star Above the Manger. For as much crunchy, blues-based riffing as is going on here, Star feels like it’s happening inside of a computer. The band themselves were drawing inspiration from Teo Macero’s work with Miles Davis, seeing how fragments of live jamming could be altered and re-edited into something new. The result is an album that, even now, 18 years later, still sounds remarkably fresh and like little else.

The ultra-stiff drums on “Chinese Balls” are one example among many of what makes this record unusual: on one level, it sounds like a Stones-y rock song, with trebly chords and slide guitar, but the rhythmic undercurrent is pure Man-Machine, even though the individual drum hits sound “live.” The title track smashes old against new in a different but still intriguing way, with a violin and banjo that are all pinched midrange, bringing to mind the thin response of a 78 that might wind up on The Anthology of American Folk Music. But the layered voices and particulars of the mix sound thoroughly contemporary, with small details that would have never occurred to someone hearing music before the advent of multi-track. On “Second Hand Sea”, one of the most beautiful ballads Tim Rutili has written, the banjo is midrange-heavy and in an unusual tuning, sounding more like a Chinese qinqin, and it traces the delicate melody as bassy throbs of percussion crash like waves on a shore, while the instrumental “Paul Pachal” moves from tense surges of guitar and malleted drums to something approaching pure noise music. You can never quite tell where you are inside this album—depression-era blues, early-’70s arena rock, downtown post-punk, early laptop era—and all the sounds and techniques swirl together, resulting in something beautifully disorienting.

For the reissue, boutique label Jealous Butcher have commissioned a new cover by John Herndon of Tortoise, pressed the records on bright orange vinyl, and have also included a variation on the song-specific artwork (also by Herndon) included with the original release. The latter is an especially nice touch, as the projects of Red Red Meat and their various offshoots always had the aura of the found object, that feeling when you confront something interesting without all the necessary context and figure out the story by working backwards. The bonus tracks, the usual assortment of outtakes, flesh out the story, and demonstrate that this was indeed a fertile period of exploration for the band. The highlight among them is the version of “Welcome Christmas”, the B-side on the title track’s 7”. It’s a version of the song sung in Whoville during the climactic scene of How The Grinch Stole Christmas. Between this cover and the one of “There’s Always Tomorrow”, from “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer”, off Bunny, Red Red Meat out themselves as a band with a sentimental streak about the holiday season, not unlike that of fellow travelers the Flaming Lips, another group that did something strange and compelling within the confines of ’90s alt rock. Red Red Meat never had a chance to be anywhere near that huge and probably would have blown it if they had, but their records hold up as well as any of the bands they were lumped with.

from Album Reviews – Pitchfork

Xylouris White: Goats

On a superficial level, this collaboration between George Xylouris, a lauded lute player from Greece, and superb Australian post-punk drummer Jim White of the Dirty Three could be described as a cultural collision. But they work outside of their respective comfort zones, transcending geographical boundaries to the point where it’s tricky to know where they’re coming from.

Xylouris is the descendant of Greek music royalty. His uncle is Nikos Xylouris, a national icon whose nickname is “archangel of Crete” because his songs are hugely influential and beloved, and his dad is Antonis Xylouris, a.k.a. Psarandonis, a singer and lyra player who is well-regarded for pushing traditional folk music in new directions. George spent much of his childhood playing the lute and joining his father on his recordings and in concert; by using the lute as a lead instrument, George, too, challenges musical expectations. 

White’s background, on the other hand, is decidedly post-punk; he co-founded the Dirty Three with Warren Ellis and Mick Turner in the early-’90s and went on to collaborate with Will Oldham, PJ Harvey, Nick Cave, and many more. He’s a magnificent, multi-faceted, and sensitive drummer with the perfect mix of ferocity and finesse. 

In Xylouris White, the lute/drums configuration makes maps irrelevant, at various points recalling Indian, Eastern European, African, Middle Eastern, Western, and Mediterranean modes. There is jazz and punk here along with dashes of bluegrass, klezmer, and folk and yet it’s all conveyed seamlessly. At some points, Xylouris’ approach to the lute recalls prepared guitar or fingerstyle practitioners like Glenn Jones, himself a friend, follower, and collaborator of John Fahey. The searching and surprise of such exploration shines through in “Suburb”, a virtuoso performance, the lute bouncing back and forth between harmonic patterns and sturdy strumming, simultaneously meshing with found and traditional percussion accents. 

Within the sequence of the record, “Psarandonis Syrto” is sure-footed after Goats presents Xylouris White spending a couple of songs getting a feel for one another. Syrtos are traditional Greek dances that people bust out at parties and weddings but “Psarandonis Syrto” has a somber, contemplative tone. On “Pulling the Bricks”, each musical flourish is a gambit and a dare, Xylouris leaning into his lute for a stretch of fast tremolo picking, while White, supportive yet minimal, provides an up tempo pattern on a ride cymbal.

It’s one of many instances on this record where pieces sound festive but brooding. “Old School Sousta” seems to be a sly piss-take at the Crete folk traditionalism that Xylouris employs in his busy, insistent lute lick and that White bolsters, mostly rolling tom drum thuds before the song climaxes with an off-kilter martial snare, signifying a parade happily running its course. 

Xylouris and White are both capable of starting storms. When, in their respective work, they strike upon a moment where they wish to explode, the jolt can be a remarkable feat of musical strength. Knowing this lends an eerie suspense to things like “Wind”, which features some dense and dynamic interaction between the players but the builds are subtle. As the piece rumbles forth, there are many instances where it feels like something huge is about to happen but the song teases and dissipates. 

The pensive joy within Goats stems from two musicians of seemingly disparate backgrounds, communicating together with the tools they know best and as well as anyone else who has ever used them. Here though, with new partners and parameters, they’ve struck upon something challenging, wholly inventive, and rewarding. 

from Album Reviews – Pitchfork