Live Leaves

I don’t like live albums. Or perhaps I should say, I can count the number of live records that I dig on one hand. The inherent problem that any such record must overcome is that it is trying to capture something that it never can. The reason why we go to see artists perform in the flesh is to experience their music, well, come to life. The live experience is nearly always louder, bigger, and better, or at the very least, something much different than listening at home. So why do bands continue to pump out live records?

Well, obviously, they are very easy and cheap to make: just record a few shows and there you go. And every band must think that they need to be captured playing onstage for posterity. But time and time again, the details that made the concert special are lost, and what is released is a muddy sounding record that does neither the band’s live set nor its studio albums justice.

I only had one experience with Unwound live (January 15, 1998 at Stage 4 in Portland with the Tight Bros from Way Back When to be exact), but I remember being dutifully impressed, especially since I was already enamored with the band’s Challenge for a Civilized Society. As such, it was disappointing when they released only one more studio album, 2001’s Leaves Turn Inside You. The band had completely eclipsed the Sonic Youth-isms of its past and was plowing into brave sonic territory.

Live Leaves is the remaining artifact from the band’s final tour. Recorded by Mike “The Kid” Ziegler, who had decided to tag along for the tour, the album possesses remarkable clarity for what is essentially bootleg-quality. Appropriately, it’s comprised largely of tracks from Leaves, with “Lifetime Achievement Award” from Challenge, “Corpse Pose” from Repitition, and “Arboretum” from Plastic Ideas. The record is moody and dissonant—much like Unwound’s studio records—while the crowd noises (someone very excited for “October All Over” shouts “yes, yes, yes!” for instance) gives the record atmosphere. I won’t go so far to say that it’s changed my mind about live albums, but it’s made my short list of those worth hearing.
Stephen Slaybaugh

Paint Fumes
Uck Life

Black Lips, Thee Oh Sees, Vivian Girls, Davila 666, Times New Viking, White Mystery, ad infinitum—the indie trash-rock end of the end of the ’00s and the start of the teens (or whatever) has been verily suffused with waves of distortion over surf-ish garage lines, clattering drums, messy production leakage, and warbly vocals stumbling through seemingly the same amps as the guitars. Slovenly Recordings has taken that stew and spilled in copious amounts of discarded cheap Chinese restaurant fryer oil, via more manic tempos and a general deference to the crankier end of that echo/clang thang. Often from overseas (probably because Slovenly jetsetter Pete Menchetti is based in Amsterdam), bands like Acid Baby Jesus, Sultan Bathery, and Bazooka have all tumbled out ace albums in the last year steeped in a cacophonous bramble of ’60s garage thumping, twitchy riffs, a wee bit of ’70s punk jump, and soiled psychedelia drawn more from serendipitous pick-ups of latter-day bootleg compilations, Black Lips B-sides, and cheap beer than any graduate classes on Roky Erickson.

What separates North Carolina trio Paint Fumes from the Slovenly oeuvre is the (jingoism alert!) intrinsic American trash-rock genetic glop in ’em. Like singer/guitarist Elijah von Cramon is actually a fervent Johnny Thunders fanatic, in budget couture and Cointreau. Hence, he and his mates kind of wobble around the stage in an ever-hungover swagger, punctuated by moments of vicious kickback, like throwing a bottle or puking onto their own trousers mid-tune—not to mention the sick pile of swamp-rock they build via their two-guitar and drums set-up. And they pretty much mimic that perfectly on their smashing debut LP, Uck Life.

Right away over the first half of the platter (“Space Cadet” and “Buried Alive,” in particular), they splash about with a cutting, powerful garage beat and Von Cramon’s snotty vox. The title track’s six-minute messy tornado hints at the mind-bending that seeps in along the end of the record (“Hippie,” “Jim & Juan”). As per my usual beef with this whole micro-movement, a wee more vocal clarity would make for a more complete ingestion of what’s making these fellas so gosh-darn pissed off. But hey, it’s a debut, and just like the lifespan of a man, gonads start to descend in a band as time goes on, and Von Cramon, should he survive numerous trips to the liquor store and STD clinics, will adjust his mumble.
Eric Davidson

Roc Marciano

The allure of New York during hip-hop’s golden era has just as much to do with survival as much as it does any album. Many careers emerged from the five boroughs, but few emcees have entered the 21st century with their sound creatively intact. Strong Island’s Roc Marciano continues to rise to the top of New York’s throwback underground. He struggled at first to gain momentum and support with his debut release in 1999, Flipmode, but in 2010, his self-produced Marcberg album was released on Fat Beats and garnered instant acclaim. On his latest release, Reloaded, Roc continues to demonstrate why his brand of classic Gotham-era hip-hop is undeniably true to the lineage of the art.

With effortless mastery, swift lyricism and a smooth, calm presence in even the bleakest of passages, each track is blessed with the touch of nothing less than a professional at work. As a producer, Roc maintains a lean, focused sound with no pageantry, just beats and rhymes. His flip of 10cc’s “I’m Not in Love” on “76” is a prime example of how he operates. This is high-proof street music, the raw essence with no artificial flavor, preservatives or enhancers.

First timers and recreational heads may potentially experience averse reactions to this strain of throwback, while xperienced users will recognize the purity of the product and respect its consumption. Fans of KMD, Gangstarr or Big Daddy Kane might want to add this to their wishlist this holiday season.
Elijah Vazquez

Tracey Thorn
Tinsel and Lights

By the sign of the calendar, tis the season for the annual unleashing of polar bears, cheerful men with beards, and unsightly sweaters. Yes, the Christmas season has unfurled its tentacles with intent on touching every aspect of your life. That also means the arrival of Christmas music. Everyone knows the old standards, and every year there’s new attempts to add to the cannon. But for every “All I Want For Christmas (Is You),” there is a Christmas on Death Row.

Tracey Thorn is best known as one half of Everything But the Girl but she’s been a solo act for a number of years with her last album being 2010’s Love and Its Opposites. Now she’s taking a crack at the holidays with Tinsel and Lights.

Generally with Christmas albums, there’s usually two dominate modes: either holly jolly or gingerbread nostalgia. But sprinkled in between the big musical tent poles are songs that acknowledge the melancholy that can also accompany the season. Thorn decided to lean towards the quiet moments. The other notable thing about Tinsel and Lights is that it’s not entirely a Christmas album despite the appearances. Thorn took a broad reaching approach to the record, making room for any song that mentioned “winter,” “cold” or “snow.” The result is a fairly diverse group of songs from writers such as Ron Sexsmith, Dolly Parton, Jack White, Sufjan Stevens, Scritti Politti’s Green Gartside (who also duets on “Taking Down the Tree”) and Low’s Al Sparhawk & Mini J. Parker. Thorn also wrote two songs herself.

While the mood of the record is generally more twilight, Thorn is a fan of the holiday. Her song “Joy,” which opens the album, is a cross between a laundry list and a call to arms for why the holiday is important. Thorn also goes for the full Technicolor tearjerker moment with an MGM-worthy version of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” Musically, if you loved Everything But the Girl or her previous solo records, this is in that same wheelhouse: there are sparse acoustic moments, some fleshed out electro-pop, and even some hip-swinging jazzy moments. Tinsel and Lights may not have any instant classics, but as a whole album, it’s a welcome holiday visitor.
Dorian S. Ham

Jah Wobble & Keith Levene
Yin & Yang
Cherry Red/MVD

While most people would have liked to have seen the line-up of Public Image Ltd. that made the seminal Metal Box album reunite, it’s nonetheless a rare year that sees both a line-up of PiL in action and two members of the Metal Box personnel, bassist Jah Wobble and guitarist Keith Levene, working together for the first time since that record. (Drummer Martin Atkins released a book offering advice on touring this year and has also been lecturing on the music business at colleges.) Besides, even if that foursome did get back together, it’s doubtful that anything on par with their legacy would have come out of it.

Wobble and Levene first reunited when the guitarist played on a few tracks on Jah’s Psychic Life record. They then, much to the chagrin of John Lydon, went on the Metal Box in Dub tour, which is exactly what it sounds like. For Yin & Yang, the pair uses a dub-like foundation of Wobble’s bass on which to extrapolate each track in varied directions. For example, the instrumental “Strut” has more in common with Buddy Guy than Lee Perry, while the duo’s take on George Harrison’s “Within You Without You” is more reminiscent of Psychic TV than Beatlesque. Meanwhile, “Back on the Block” actually recalls Metal Box in its darker moments. Though Wobble and Levene do misfire—most notably on the wishy-washy “Mississippi”—Yin & Yang is not a bad showing. It may not be the record we wanted, but, not discounting This Is PIL, it’s perhaps the next best thing.
Stephen Slaybaugh

MP3: “Yin & Yang”