Hem and Autumn Defense
Birds, Beasts and Flowers
This album goes down like a good bottle of red wine in the late afternoon. It will make you sleepy, but after a good nap you’ll wake up and gladly go back for more.
Birds, Beasts and Flowers reminds me of Van Morrison’s Tupelo Honey crossed with Nick Drake or Leonard Cohen—half country cadence, half musing poetry accompanied by wonderfully arranged acoustic explorations. The two bands (Brooklyn eight-piece Hem and Wilco offshoot Autumn Defense) go song for song on this little gem, each tune complementing the previous one as it does the next. “Half Acre,” the album opener and strongest track, trickles along like a creek, driven by a steady, subtle mandolin, violin, sparse piano, rumbling drums and a tastefully subtle steel guitar. Sally Ellyson, Hem’s vocalist, sings over all of it like a bird.
What is perhaps most impressive about this album is how well the two bands mesh while keeping their respective personalities intact. While Hem is more traditional and almost Celtic, Autumn Defense’s sound is more Americana-meets-the Beatles. Hem makes brilliant use of the tympani, Autumn Defense of the harpsichord.
Lyrically, the music is simple, comprising observations, mini-stories and musings. All of which complement the music quite well. A lovely listen. (David Nolt)
Is It Rolling Bob? A Reggae Tribute to Bob Dylan
A reggae tribute to Bob Dylan? Why the hell not, I say. The liner notes make many comparisons between Bob Dylan and Bob Marley, and that makes sense in a way. Both were not only musical pioneers but also revolutionary poets. I would have liked to hear the two Bobs singing each other’s songs, but that’s probably a bit much to ask.
Toots and the Maytals provide the album’s most poignant entry, singing “Maggie’s Farm.” A black musician singing a song of servitude written by a white man. Indeed, the times have changed. As a whole, the album is not great, but it’s fun to listen to, much like it would be fun to listen to a folk tribute to reggae (think Pete Seeger singing “Concrete Jungle”). There is good reggae here but also a lot of bad. The song selection also leaves me wanting for songs that might have lent themselves better to a deeper, darker Dylan-style reggae. “It’s Alright Ma I’m Only Bleeding,” maybe. I don’t know how or even if it would work as a reggae song, but it would be damn cool.
I suppose these songs would all sound better if you’re stoned, which is what they were probably going for, thus the Bringing It All Back Home-style cover with Bob Dylan twisting up a big fat Kingston carrot. Every listener must get stoned. (David Nolt)
Medeski Martin and Wood
End of the World Party: Just in Case (Dig)
The raw power and skill that Medeski Martin and Wood embody in their music is undeniable. However, some fans insist that their last four albums have been forgettable compared to their earlier outings.
Enter John King, and out comes End of the World Party, MMW’s latest release. King, half of the Dust Brothers production team, helped MMW—as he did for Beck with Odelay and the Beastie Boys with Paul’s Boutique—create what could be their best album yet. Since 1998’s Combustication, MMW has struggled to guide its musical capabilities into a cohesive, hard-hitting album. This latest album with King at the knobs is a combination of MMW’s range in jazz, Latin funk and turbulent dance music with dark electronic atmospherics. It is polished and satisfying from beginning to end.
Chris Wood delivers thick bass lines that are driving and sexy, especially on “Curtis.” Drummer Billy Martin hammers out beats ranging from swing to Afro beats, and “Mami Gato” is a stellar display of his cultured Latin style. John Medeski simply plays like a human octopus and continues to prove himself a genius at mixing diverse keyboard sounds into melody, particularly on “Shine It” and “Anonymous Skulls.” Excepting a few spots where it sounds like five different keyboard tracks are playing simultaneously, this album sounds especially live. (Matt Kowalski)
It’s an inspiring bit of band mythology: Before getting signed to Columbia, Los Angeles band Avion barnstormed their would-be breakthrough hit, “Seven Days without You,” to radio stations in some 65 cities across the country, setting up with amps and everything in conference rooms in a spirited bid to be heard.
Telling choice of bait, though, to hook and land the big deal. “Seven Days without You” is a power ballad tailor-made for TV and movie soundtrack crossover success. It’s not even the strongest track on the album, but then it’s nowhere written in stone that a band’s strongest material is going to be its most commercially successful. Often it’s quite the opposite. At any rate, these guys obviously know how to play the game.
Avion offers up 13 tracks of squeaky-clean adult-contemporary pop with more hooks than a pike derby and production so slick and glossy you can see yourself in it. It’s also refreshingly upbeat and positive, eschewing the fashionable blasé that usually manifests itself in empty lyrical cynicism and leaves the listener wondering whether to care or not. Fans of Matchbox 20, this is all you. (Andy Smetanka)
Avion opens for Everclear on Monday, Nov. 22, at the Wilma Theatre.