Known Johnson

September 12, 2006

Overlooked Alternatives: The Black Keys, Bill Frisell/Ron Carter/Paul Motian, Branford Marsalis Quartet, The Mars Volta, Mastodon, Pat Metheny and Brad Mehldau, REM, TV On The Radio, Yo La Tengo

Filed under: Music,Overlooked Alternatives — Tom @ 9:52 am

Man, what a week of releases this week is turning out to be. Apparently if you’re a music freak, Christmas is coming about two and a half months early, because Santa apparently is making an early delivery today. Why so much stuff is crammed into the release schedule on this one day, I can’t imagine. I’d better get started on this or it’s going to take me all night to get this typed up . . .

The Black Keys – Magic Potion: Every genre seems to get reinvented every so often. Jazz had its renewal a few years back, and now the blues seems to be burbling under again, what with the White Stripes having been so successful the past few years. But the White Stripes got nuthin’ on this (also) duo of guitar and drums. The Black Keys reach back into the blues’ swampy past to pull at the greasy, grimy roots and get something good and gritty. This is the kind of stuff you always hear modern guitarists talking about listening to, but you never hear a whole lot of proof in their own music that they actually listened to anything beyond some old Zeppelin records. The Black Keys actually deliver.

Ornette Coleman – Sound Grammar: I really can’t tell you much about this – I’m just intrigued to see something new from free-jazz pioneer Ornette. All I know is that the material on this was taken from recent live dates with his son on drums, Denardo, and bassists Greg Cohen and Tony Falaga. Your guess is as good as mine as to the rest.

Bill Frisell, Ron Carter, Paul Motian: I have been a big proponent of jazz guitarist Bill Frisell’s explorations into Americana for quite a long time now, but I have to admit that I’m really excited to see this trio set getting him back to hard-core jazz again. There just comes a time when maybe it’s best to get back to where it all began, and it seems that right now might that time.

Following on the heels of the very successful (music-wise) East/West live album, which found Frisell straying back into jazzier territory with his Americana-based material, this album pairs him with his long-time associate, drummer Paul Motian, with whom he’s recorded a number of albums, but never together with bassist Ron Carter. Hopefully this won’t be a one-off.

Branford Marsalis Quartet – Braggtown: Could it be that the labels waited until fall to release their jazz albums? I’ve been asking myself many times lately if I’ve simply fallen out of love with jazz, or has it been a terrible year for the genre? Maybe it’s simply been a terribly slow year, as it appears that this week begins an introduction of a number of jazz releases throughout the fall.

I find Marsalis hit and miss, but I’m always intrigued to hear what he’s up to.

The Mars Volta – Amputechture: After Frances the Mute, I honestly wasn’t sure if I particularly cared where the Mars Volta was going next. I found the album completely misguided – or maybe unguided is a more fitting word – and a sonic mess, as if the band simply threw together every chord progression and half-song idea they could muster, then stretched everything out for as long as possible with ambient drones when they ran out of ideas. I have to give them credit, however – they sure tried everything they seemed to have in their collective suggestion box.

This time around, however, they’ve tightened things up a bit. Oh, don’t worry, things are still ridiculously overblown – that’s part of their appeal – but at least there seems to be some sense of direction going on in this one. I don’t need prog-rock to necessarily make sense – but I do need it to sound like it made some kind of sense to the band themselves. And on that front, Amputechture seems to mean something to them, and it’s far, far stronger than Frances the Mute for it.

Mastodon – Blood Mountain: Would it be overkill to just go ahead and say “metal album of the year”? Maybe, but maybe not. Somehow, they’ve done it again – turned out yet another amazing, mind-bending, just plain weird album of metal virtually unlike anything else out there now or ever before. What’s more, it doesn’t really sound like Remission or Leviathan – and neither of those two sounded much like each other, either – yet it is decidedly and unmistakeably Mastodon. Few bands’ names are as particularly suited to their sound as Mastodon – they’re that heavy.

Pat Metheny and Brad Mehldau – Metheny/Mehldau: This is one of those pairings that could either be a match made in heaven or be a regrettable, embarassing mess. Luckily, from the little I’ve gotten to hear of this match of jazz guitarist Metheny and pianist Mehldau, it’s the former, and it pulls equally from each’s strong points.

REM – And I Feel Fine: The Best Of The IRS Years 1982-1987 (Collector’s Edition): REM’s early and best material is finally getting the remaster treatment it has long deserved. Of course, we won’t see the remastered albums for a while, as Capitol isn’t dumb enough to give up on holiday and nostalgia sales of a best-of and then double up on the income by unleashing deluxe editions of the original albums with lavish packaging and lots of extra tracks. And, of course, fans can’t be without this, either, because the label was wise enough to compile a version with an extra 21 tracks worth of outtakes and rarities that should sate their appetite for new stuff, should the remastered tracks not be enough to part money from their wallets. And, really, for only a few dollars more, it’s just not worth buying the stand-alone best-of and pass up this “Collector’s Edition.” I’ll bet that none of these tracks find their way onto the remastered albums next year, either, making this a must-have.

TV On The Radio – Return To Cookie Mountain: Guaranteed to be a very, very strong contender for album of the year on many lists – you read it here. TV On The Radio has grown immensely from their first, very impressive debut album, and I (and others) think this may be the time for them to really turn heads. I’ll be disappointed if they don’t.

An unconventional combination of the sound of early solo Peter Gabriel, Talking Heads, and touches of David Bowie with hip-hop and minimalist post-rock sensibilities of today, TV On The Radio doesn’t really sound like rock per se, yet doesn’t sound so esoteric that their music is a turn-off. Instead, the stew of sound they concoct is mesmerizing. It’s just so different that you can’t help but be fascinated. There aren’t many things going on in rock that I can point to and say with confidence that people will look back on in 20 years and still look at as an important musical statement – the days of those moments happening with any frequency are long over – but this is one of them.

Yo La Tengo – I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass: While TV On The Radio might be the best album of the year, this has to be the best album title of the year.

Yo La Tengo “took it down a notch” on their last couple of albums, and while I can appreciate their quieter side, my favorite album of theirs is I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One because it mixed their renowned tendency to go jazzy and explore with plenty of moments where they just cut loose and wailed on their instruments – and the last couple were notable for very little of that. The reviews I’ve been reading suggest that, 9 years later, they’ve finally found those distortion pedals again and have given us another album like I Can Hear, so I’m pretty excited to see what this album has to offer.

And that’s not all – I’ve left a lot out that I know others might be interested in:

Justin Timberlake
John Mayer
Barenaked Ladies
Bob Seger
Los Lobos
Mouse On Mars

I simply can’t cover it all, nor do I even want to (some I obviously don’t care about.) Gotta draw the line somewhere. Like I said, Christmas is a-coming, but why everything had to be dumped onto today, I can’t imagine.



  1. I’m vastly interested in the new Ornette Coleman and may have to pick it up, despite the fact that his best years are likely behind him.

    I snagged a promo copy of the new Mars Volta but haven’t listened to it yet. Probably tonight.

    I also got a promo of the Metheny/Mehldau collaboration last night, and it was the first time I had even heard of this (I’m finding that Brad’s not very good at promoting himself). You’re right about the collaboration being either very good or an embarrassment. As you know, I adore Brad to pieces, and I like Pat a lot, despite the fact that I’m not a big fan of jazz guitar. I’ll let you know what I think of it when I hear it (again, probably tonight).

    The aversion to jazz guitar has led me to some skepticism about all the hoo-hah surrounding Bill Frisell. Everyone seems to worship the guy, so I suppose I should check him out. I have a promo copy of Unspeakable that I listened to once, about two years ago. Any recommendations?

    Comment by Chris — September 15, 2006 @ 7:10 am | Reply

  2. Oh, and I can’t believe I’m admitting this, but…I saw Timberlake on Letterman the other night, and it was…actually…not bad.

    Comment by Chris — September 15, 2006 @ 7:12 am | Reply

  3. I really like this Metheny/Mehldau album, Chris – it’s even better than I was expecting. I’m not a huge fan of Metheny’s synth-guitar work, so I’m glad it’s kept to a minimum here, and his straight-guitar work really stands out.

    As for Frisell, he’s kind of an aquired taste because he’s so edgy in a lot of his stuff. He truly is the “Hendrix of jazz guitar,” as I saw him billed when I first found him. Some of his sides with other musicians, like this one, are more straight-ahead jazz than what he typically does. On his own, when he’s not doing his Americana thing, he really gets into “skronk” jazz and I can fully understand why many would not get into that (I love it, however!) For a good taster of what he’s capable of, I would HIGHLY recommend checking out his live album from last year, East/West – he seems to cover a little bit of almost everything there, and also keep an eye out for the albums he’s done with Paul Motian as leader (with Joe Lovano on sax,) all of which feature him in a much more traditional role (the three On Broadway albums are great as is the Monk In Motian disc. I believe all of these have recently been reissued by Winter & Winter and may be available at Borders.)

    Also check out Wes Montgomery, especially his Smokin’ at the Half Note – the title isn’t misleading. Be wary of albums recorded later than this – he started doing pop-song covers and they’re probably not what you’re looking for.

    As for Timberlake, I have to admit that when I saw him perform on SNL several years, I think, he was impressive – he shed all of the studio gimmickery and had a really strong band with a bunch of gospel singers, plus tossed in some really intriguing bits of a semi-obscure Led Zeppelin (which I am completely forgetting the name of right now.) Why he can’t allow this side of his music to come through in his recordings, I don’t know. It’s too bad.

    Comment by Tom — September 15, 2006 @ 10:06 am | Reply

  4. Belated additional comment to this post…

    I snagged a promo copy of Braggtown the other day and it’s very, very good. Of course I’m biased when it comes to Branford…the guy pretty much always impresses me. But this is definitely something you should look into.

    I also got a promo of the new Keith jarrett, which is pretty damn sweet.

    I’m giving my copy of Unspeakable – my lone Bill Frisell recording – another spin as we speak, trying to develop a taste for it. Right now I’m digging it an awful lot. Go figure.

    Comment by Chris — October 9, 2006 @ 3:24 pm | Reply

  5. Cool! I keep meaning to pick up the Marsalis disc, but it always slips my mind when I finally get around to a store or ordering from Amazon. I really should move this forward on the list – I’ve seen some good reviews of it, plus I really like his recent take on A Love Supreme.

    Glad to hear Frisell’s sinking in a bit – give him some time, he’s an odd one because his sound is so country-influenced. Unspeakable‘s a weird little album – I like it a lot, but it’s just a strange combination of elements going on there that doesn’t really sound like it should work, but somehow it does. Definitely keep an eye out for any promos or used copies of his latest, however – I still stand by that one as really, really excellent intro to his sound and style. Not only one of my favorite jazz albums of the year, one of my favorite albums of the year, period. It’s utterly wonderful.

    Comment by Tom — October 9, 2006 @ 11:35 pm | Reply

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