Gang of Four
Yep Roc

More than 30 years ago, Gang of Four made its reputation as an artful recapitulation of punk aesthetics with the one-two punch of 1979’s Entertainment! and 1981’s Solid Gold. Since then the band—the core of vocalist Jon King and guitarist Andy Gill with, intermittently, bassist Dave Allen and drummer Hugo Burnham—have operated in fits and starts, but have been largely unsuccessful in living up to their own legacy. When that original line-up reconvened for the first time in 20 years in 2004, playing riveting live shows and releasing a collection of old material reworked, Return the Gift, it seemed like the band might once again have its day in the sun.

Before another record could be completed, though, Allen and Burnham exited the fold once again. (One’s got to suspect that the tension between Gill’s guitar lacerations, King’s whiplashed vocals and the rhythm section’s funk throb was as much a manifestation of personal dynamics as it was of musical interaction.) Content, then, may not be the great comeback for which we were all hoping, but it’s got more than its share of merits. Gang of Four’s lyrical concerns have gone from political to personal, and that approach blows up in its collective face on cuts like “Who Am I?” and “I Party All the Time,” but the record still has plenty of moments where they get everything right. “Never Pay for the Farm” clangs with indignation, Gill’s riffs scraping against the new rhythm section, while “Do As I Say” is built atop herky-jerky rhythms and moves at sharp angles in a manner that recalls GOF classics like “Anthrax.” Content isn’t the great second coming of Gang of Four that we’ve anticipated for more than three decades, but it reveals a band that refuses to regress while, at the same time, showing flashes of what made them great in the first place.
Stephen Slaybaugh

Wanda Jackson
The Party Ain’t Over
Third Man/Nonesuch

Pop culture memory is a fickle beast. In a time when acts such as Blink-182 and the Strokes are being called “old-school,” it’s not hard to see how certain acts never entered the conversation. Sadly, Wanda Jackson falls into that knowledge gap. She released her first song in 1954, and aside from a spell in the ’70s where she ceased performing secular music, she’s stayed active since then. At the height of her popularity she was dubbed the “Queen Of Rockabilly,” but she has never received the acclaim of her contemporaries.

Following his successful revitalization of Loretta Lynn’s career in ’04, Jack White has turned his attention to Jackson. The result is this collection of covers, The Party Ain’t Over. The record tackles everyone from Bob Dylan to Amy Winehouse, and even throws in a classic gospel tune. In many ways, the Jackson-White collaboration makes more sense than Lynn. While Van Leer Rose is a great record, you get the sense that White held back a little bit out of respect for Lynn and her legendary status. On The Party Ain’t Over, Jackson and White seem more like raucous buddies than doting son and mother, with White taking a heavier hand in guiding the ship. And while there are a smattering of other guests on this record too, the focus is squarely on Jackson and White.

White and Jackson could have played it safe and crafted an album full of the type of songs that made Jackson popular in her heyday. After all, White has a well-documented love for the sonics of that time. Instead, Jack hauled in a horn section, amped up the proceedings, and crossed rock & roll with R&B revival. The clashing styles ends up making perfect sense. The only moment that doesn’t work is the opener, “Shakin’ All Over,” where White gets unnecessarily heavy with the effects knob on Jackson’s voice. But aside from that minor hiccup, The Party Ain’t Over is an insanely enjoyable, inspired collection that shows age ain’t nothing but a number.
Dorian S. Ham

Spiritual • Mental • Physical
Drag City

Just in case ...For the Whole World to See, Death’s “debut” album, wasn’t crude enough for you, Drag City has put together this collection of demos. Recorded between 1974 and 1976 seemingly without the benefit of technology or ornamentation, these rarities form a ridiculously intimate portrait of a band in the making. When I tell you this is the sound of three dudes fucking around without supervision, it’s not a metaphor. There are moments when it’s endearingly obvious that they’re just getting their rocks off without fear of any critical analysis.

“Views” leads the set off and it’s the pick of the litter. Featuring fast riffs and funny falsettos, it’s suitable for pogoing and slamdancing both. “The Masks” rips the verse melody from “Got to Get You Into My Life” and pairs it with some motor-powered shredding for a nice study in contrasts. “Can You Give Me a Thrill???” must have been planned as a crowd-pleaser; you’ll hear repeated yelps of “rock ’n’ roll!” Even “The Change,” a tender instrumental track, is shot through with one of the band’s exploratory grooves.

About half the time, the record is really awesome, so Death revivalists shouldn’t wait to pick this up. But don’t get your expectations too awfully high. Only half the tracks have any vocals, and the last three (of ten) songs are instrumental solos from David (guitars), Bobby (bass), and Dannis (drums). Most of the time, it sounds like they really just put a microphone in the middle of the room and hit record. You might as well be in the garage with them, sitting on an empty milk crate and bobbing your head in affirmation.
Matt Slaybaugh

MP3: “Can You Give Me a Thrill???”

Amos Lee
Mission Bell
Blue Note

It can be frustrating when a natural singer-songwriter glides through a conveyor belt of clean arrangements and glossy tweaks. On his fourth studio album, soul-folk artist Amos Lee unfolds a dozen songs which mostly droop from too much slickness. Mission Bell features such notable guest musicians as Lucinda Williams, Sam Beam (Iron and Wine) and Willie Nelson and was produced by Joey Burns (Calexico), but it doesn’t rival the brusqueness of Lee’s 2005 self-titled debut album.

Overall, Mission Bell is safe, pleasant, and pretty. “Windows Are Rolled Down” is characterized by intense radio-friendliness, while “Flower” is an uncanny mix of Pure Prairie League’s “Let Me Love You Tonight” and the Commodores’ “Easy.” Glimmers of sweet coarseness appear on more honest cuts like “Learned A Lot.” The most poignant track is the 12th, “Behind Me Now/El Camino Reprise,” the second half of which Nelson sagely contributes. If the rest of the album would have sounded as unhinged, its value would have risen.

Lee’s record label refers to him as “one of the most important and prolific songwriters of our time,” and while he’s clearly gifted, he shines more without lights. He doesn’t need egregiousness or overproduction. Predictable records have their place in dentist offices and department store bathrooms. This, however, is a man with something to say who simply needs simple means. Where’s Rick Rubin when you need him?
Alexandra Kelley

Sic Alps
Napa Asylum
Drag City

In the two and a half years since Sic Alps released U.S. Ez, easily one of the best albums to come out of 2008, the duo of Mike Donovan and Matt Hartman have added a third member (Noel von Harmonson, formerly of Comets of Fire) to the fold and signed on with Drag City, who reissued the band’s A Long Way Around to a Shortcut on vinyl last year. Sonically, though, the double-length follow-up the band has produced in the interim doesn’t depart from the Alps’ boilerplate of lo-fi blues rock meshed with scruffy psychedelicized pop. They’ve stretched their output over two records now, but this is still a collection of mostly three-minute and under nuggets that in total amount to just over 43 minutes. As such, the record swings haphazardly between lysergic pastures and blown-out precipices with the same wonderfully woozy demeanor that Sic Alps have shown in the past. Indeed, songs like “Do You Want to Give $$?” and “Meter Man” tumble over themselves with lazy abandon, choruses and verses blending together in blurry colorful trails. And when the now trio does dabble in black magic overload, as on “Trip Train” and the Hendrix-channelling “The First White Man to Touch California Soul,” they do so with furious precision. “Ranger,” which balances the two approaches—guitar squawks panned to one of the song’s corners, while a bassline groove and acoustic strum take centerstage—favors a slow build that shows a bit of deliberation working in the Alps’ favor. One gets the sense, though, that much of the record was never envisioned as a whole, as its not without its redundancies. But its in natural incoherence that the Sic Alps specialize and that specialty becomes hard not to find enthralling when brilliance emerges out of the debris.
Stephen Slaybaugh

MP3: “Do You Want to Give $$?”