Red Barked Tree
Pink Flag

After more than three decades of crafting, if not always groundbreaking, then at the very least challenging music, one would think it second nature for Wire to continually be pushing at the norms. Following on 2008’s excellent Object 47, Red Barked Tree shows the post-punk vets to still be in top form, even when they don’t spin pure gold.

Really, though, the only problem with Red Barked Tree may just be a matter of sequencing. “Please Take” (as in “please take your knife out of my back”) leads the record off at a mid-tempo pace reminiscent of A Bell Is a Cup... Until It Is Struck; its leisurely, pop lilt is probably better suited to being shuffled into the album’s latter third. The same goes for “Now Was” and “Adapt,” which follow in the slipstream of their predecessor. The record doesn’t feel like it starts in earnest until four songs in with “Two Minutes,” a jarring mix of industrially tinged drone and Robert Grey’s droid-precise beats. “Clay,” which follows, would be a perfect second song, as it melds misty post-pop and Colin Newman’s penchant for obliqueness into one of the record’s high points. “Bad Worn Thing,” “Moreover” and “A Flat Tent” round out the heart of the album, the last two being the best examples of the mix of guitar clatter and jackhammer beats that’s characterized Wire in the 21st century. Switch things around a bit and Red Barked may have more of an impact. Taken as it is, though, there is still plenty of effulgence at its core.
Stephen Slaybaugh

MP3: “Two Minutes”

Fresh Millions
Fresh Millions
Learning Secrets

Live dance music is difficult to pull off. Rather than worrying about a live drummer biffing a fill or dropping a stick in the midst of a groove, dance musicians have long relied on machines. Instead of dealing with finicky stringed instruments that might not sound the same from night to night, sounds synthesized by electronics have long been the standard. The last decade or so there’s been a growing trend in the dance-rock genre to incorporate as many traditional instrumentalists as possible, loading the stage with bassists and guitarists and percussionists and keyboardists, and even using a real live drummer. Acts like !!! and LCD Soundsystem have pulled it off perfectly, but other bands just end up sounding like an exercise in musical athleticism.

Fresh Millions fall somewhere in between live techno perfection and college jock-rock extremes. Not every sound is live—there’s plenty of samples and computer noises—but the drums and strings sound huge and energetic, thanks in part to production by Brian Ritchie from the Sword. Cuts like the rock-oriented “Monty,” which features some pretty nasty guitar leads and nicely mapped high-energy drum changes, and lead-off track “Forever” showcase the qualities of the live dance band. They will actually get people moving on the dancefloor and play just as well on headphones as they do through giant club speakers. As the nine-track album continues, the adrenaline wears off and it becomes sort of a drag to slog through. It’s also best to not focus too much on the lyrics—they’re hokey at best, but that’s a symptom of even the best dance tracks. A few cuts off Fresh Millions are sure to get the party started, but make sure the rest of your DJ set has enough energy to top them.
Michael P. O’Shaughnessy

MP3: “Monty”

Arthur’s Landing
Arthur’s Landing

Arthur Russell’s tale is one of those quintessential New York in the ’70s stories. Guy moves to the city and finds himself in the middle of an explosion of culture and music. Inspired, he becomes an instrumental part of the scene, but outside of brief flirtations with the mainstream, his contributions are largely lost to the shifting sands of pop culture. In the past few years, however, there has been a revival and reexamination of all things Russell, from reissues of his many and varied projects to exhaustive articles and biographies. The latest piece in the puzzle is the self-tiled debut of Arthur’s Landing, a band made up of Russell’s collaborators.

Even amongst the crazy quilt of his contemporaries, Russell cut a unique figure. He was a classical cellist, a singer and songwriter, avant-garde composer, experimental pop rocker and a disco producer. And he also found time to collaborate with Allen Ginsberg, Phillip Glass, and members of the Modern Lovers among many, many others. As to be expected ,the members of Arthur’s Landing, while not quite as far reaching as Russell, are from all over the musical spectrum. It’s fitting that this type of line-up is trying to tackle the multi-headed beast that is Russell’s legacy.

Arthur’s Landing is a shifting group of Russell’s collaborators and contemporaries playing new arrangements of his best-known works as well as obscurities and unreleased demos. There’s potentially something here for everyone as the band tries to hit every aspect of Russell’s career. But interestingly enough it presents a potential problem. Trying to present the different phases of Russell’s career as stand alone songs would give the average listener whiplash. Instead the band recasts the songs in a largely downtempo, jazzy mode. In some ways, it’s a fittingly radical reinvention.

But if you’re a fan of specific aspects of Russell, Arthur’s Landing may disappoint. The reworking of the Loose Ends’ “Is It All Over My Face,” one of Russell few mainstream hits, as “Love Dancing” lacks that hard-hitting oomph that still causes the original to destroy dancefloors. And on the other end, there’s little in the avant garde represented. But the basis for much of Russell’s career was to confound convention, so to showcase how pliable his music was is a tribute to a man who was notoriously always reworking and rethinking his own music. Thus Arthur’s Landing is a worthy piece in his legacy.
Dorian S. Ham

The Ex
Catch My Shoe

With the band known as much for their socialist leanings as their fiery and terse brand of post-punk, having to replace the lead mouthpiece would seem to be an irreparable modification to the Ex’s fabric. I mean, after 24 albums with GW Sok’s distinctive warble front and center, can you really make a change like that? For most bands, probably not. But with album number 25, the Ex prove once again that they are not an ordinary band and are able to overcome what would be unsurpassable for most.

On Catch My Shoe, Sok’s replacement, Arnold de Boer, proves himself to be a worthy successor. His vocals are less gnarly, but no less effective, while he’s introduced an African influence with his guitar work. This is most noticeable on “Maybe I Was the Pilot,” which the band admits in the liner notes is an adaptation of Ugandan artist Iganitiyo Ekacholi’s “Elosi Aberu Skipore Imaniti Abirio,” but the album as a whole is laced with fluid rhythms and riffs. As such the Dutch group sounds more invigorated than it has in years. “Bicycle Illusion” is a particularly striking juxtaposition of criss-crossed guitars and pounding beats. Lyrically, the Ex hasn’t lost anything either. “Cold Weather Is Back” is a particularly poignant view into a post-apocalyptic world where computers and cell phones have been replaced by icicles. More than just survived their line-up change, the Ex have perhaps found themselves a new lease on life.
Stephen Slaybaugh

Robert Pollard
Space City Kicks
GBV, Inc.

It’s a new year’s resolution to develop a very pedagogical rubric with which to evaluate the constant flow of Robert Pollard releases. You’re either on or off with Pollard—and those who are “off” are just waiting for someone to tell them he’s finally made another Bee Thousand. Fear not. The only thing that can be for certain is that Pollard is making better music now than he did by himself 10 years ago. Purists would probably balk at that statement, but it’s true. His last three solo records have displayed a renaissance, an understanding of what must be done to balance his idiosyncratic pop side with his obtuse penchant for experimentation and tutored writing habits. Due to Pollard’s unending schedule, Space City Kicks will likely be forgotten by September, even by card-carrying GBV geeks like myself. Naming Uncle Bob’s records in descending order is a chore, but history will rightly wrong that notion when Pollard’s inevitable solo boxsets get released when our kids are college bound.

Space City Kicks is boasted as a perfect companion to the ongoing reunion of the classic Guided By Voices line-up because apparently, any wish of a Guided By Voices record is out of the question and it delivers as such. Of course, in 2011, the cut-and-paste freeform of those “classic” albums is gone; there’s nothing left in the vault and begrudgingly Pollard refuses to untie the rope from his constant production buddy Todd Tobias (just for shits and giggles). But those quips can’t take away from the quality of the material here. I would normally shrug at any suggestion that this record harkens to the salad days, but Pollard sounds invigorated. Space City Kicks (a reference to the man’s onstage acrobatics) lives up to its promise. At a brief 35 minutes, the record breezes by, even when the lighter moments are heavily anchored with lumbering prog excercises like “Sex She Said” and “Children Ships” that would suggest a more streamlined version of Pollard and Tobias’ confounding Circus Devils matter. To be a Pollard fan, though, you have to look at the bigger picture. This is a crafted album, not a collection of random songs. Allegedly, Space City Kicks is the product of an exquisite corpse contortion of song titles (i.e. hillbilly mad libs). For example, “Something Strawberry” is a combination of “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Something.” No matter the conception, these gems could fit into the classic touring band’s oeuvre, especially cuts like “Touch Me in the Right Place at the Right Time” and “I Wanna Be Your Man in the Moon.” It’s album-oriented rock in that, like for most of his career, Pollard’s work should be ingested record for record, each as their own trip. That’s a lot of praise for Space City Kicks, without even mentioning the addition of some heart-wrenching ballads in the creamy middle that sound like the man weeping with an acoustic guitar, thinking of his next move (or six).
Kevin J. Elliott