Known Johnson

August 22, 2006

Overlooked Alternatives: Lambchop, Ratatat, Tortoise

Filed under: Music,Overlooked Alternatives — Tom @ 10:42 am

Summer is winding to a close in its usual way in Arizona. It’s only “mildly” hot, hovering around one hundred five degrees, generally, each day beginning mild but humid. As the day progresses, the clouds to the north and the east grow to tower over the valley, threatening to unleash torrents of rain . . . for fifteen or twenty minutes. Don’t get me wrong – it can be devastating for some. We have little plant life with which to hold the soil, so muddy road flooding is frequent, but sometimes our reactions to rain can get out of hand.

This is the monsoon season, and if you’ve ever spent any time in Arizona, we act like we’re being hit by a hurricane – every day that it rains. Entire newscasts will be devoted to the weather event, to the point that other real news is almost entirely ignored, even if it doesn’t actually pan out, which is a frequent occurence. Given that Phoenix is in a valley, storms often build up only to actually skirt either over top of us or right around the outside. It’s a tremendous letdown to spend half your day watching storms looming over the city only to watch them slyly shuffle around and head down to Tucson. We look forward to rain like Seattle looks forward to sun.

I look forward to this time of year, however, because with the end of summer comes the cooler weather, and it means that things start winding up toward the more exciting parts of the year – Halloween, Thanksgiving, and, of course, Christmas. It also means we’ve lived through another mostly dull summer of music releases, the labels having saved the “little” things for this period to fill out their release schedule. Soon we’ll start seeing the list filled with boxsets, DVDs, and best-ofs, some probably just rehashes of things that have been out for years. But that’s then. What’s up for release right now?

Lambchop – Damaged: Lambchop has always been dark, but this might just be their darkest point yet – and most gorgeous, too. Beginning as an odd alternative country outfit in the early 90s, they have, through the years, slowly transitioned away from those roots to incorporate elements of soul, R&B, jazz, and many other genres, but it seems that in the past few albums “soul and R&B” is what has emerged as the dominant sound. Here, frontman Kurt Wagner has opted to set aside his usual wry lyrical observations and instead plumb the depths of his soul. Wagner’s croak has deepened and developed through the years, and here it feels like he’s inviting you to hear something no one else should know. Damaged is a beautiful, dramatic album that should find itself on many year-end “best” lists – including mine.

Ratatat – Classics: I found myself strangely enamored of this odd little second album from this guitar/electronics duo. On the one hand, it seems far too simple to be as exciting as I found it – and yet I can’t help myself. Drum machines burble their beats, synths sing out sine waves, and the guitar alternately slashes and strums. It just doesn’t sound like it could possibly be this fun, but what makes it so return-worthy is that there’s a grander sense of beauty imbued in each track than it might seem on the initial listen – when you come back for more, there’s truly more to embrace.

Tortoise – A Lazarus Taxon: If you know the term “post-rock,” you probably know it because of these guys. Since forming in the early 90s, they’ve incorporated a little bit of everything that wasn’t really straight-ahead rock to create a unique sound that an uncountable number of other bands then came along and stole. Avant-garde jazz and 70s Krautrock are probably the most noticeable influences that form the basis of the Tortoise sound.

While their regular studio albums have been readily available, the band has churned out a number of difficult to find singles and EPs, as well as remixing other bands’ projects, and this three-CD, one DVD box is here to solve the problems finding all those rarities. Compiling not only their import remix album Rhythms, Resolutions & Clusters, but also those hard to find EPs, singles, and other assorted oddities, the DVD includes live footage, videos, and films – and a dirt-cheap price that equates to about a regular single CD price. You can’t beat that.

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