Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Willie Nelson, Silversun Pickups, Peter Walker, Unwed Sailor

Willie Nelson – Songbird

These days Willie is hit-or-miss for me. He followed up his horrendous reggae album Countryman with the surprisingly lovely You Don’t Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker. Now he’s back with Songbird, aided and abetted by fellow renegade Ryan Adams and his backing band The Cardinals. Willie’s voice, always a somewhat dubious instrument, is thinner than it used to be. But he makes up for it in engaging in some rowdy good times. As smooth and countrypolitan as the Cindy Walker album was, Songbird is all jagged edges and bar band raunch. There are some mediocre covers (please, not Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” again, and Gram Parsons’ “$1000 Wedding” is surprisingly lackluster), but Willie’s take on The Grateful Dead’s “Stella Blue” is an unexpected highlight, and the title track (yes, Willie does Fleetwood Mac) is pure gold. Adams and the Cardinals kick up a fuss behind him, and Willie sounds more energized than he has in years.

Silversun Pickups – Carnavas

It was about time for an early nineties revival. L.A.’s Silversun Pickups clearly listened to a lot of My Bloody Valentine, Smashing Pumpkins, and Pixies during their misspent youth. So if their debut album is derivative, and it is, then at least they they picked some great influences. Singer/songwriter Brian Aubert takes Kevin Shields’ hazy wall of guitar noise and marries it to some infectious hooks. Bassist Nikki Monninger has her Kim Deal moves down, and sings/shouts the harmonies. And overall, Aubert writes better songs than Billy Corgan has written in fifteen years. If it’s not original, it’s at least good. That’s better than anything I can say about the reconstituted Pixies, the increasingly bland Corgan, or the long gone Valentine.

Peter Walker/Various Artists – A Raga for Peter Walker

First Vashti Bunyan. Now Peter Walker. The old hippies have decided to become productive again in their dotage. The legendary/infamous guitarist Peter Walker was the musical director for Timothy Leary’s LSD experiments at Harvard, recorded two folk albums for the venerable Vanguard Records in the late 1960s, and then took a 37-year break. Hey, everybody needs to stop and smell the roses. And have you ever tasted red, man? I mean, like, really let red permeate your whole being? So, after a colorful few decades, Peter’s back with a new album, A Raga for Peter Walker, which features Walker on four new tracks, and musical friends such as Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore on seven more. It's lovely music, too, combining some intricate acoustic fingerpicking with the drone that you would expect given the album title. If Leo Kottke and Ravi Shankar joined forces, this is what they might sound like. Far out, old man.

Unwed Sailor – The White Ox

Unwed Sailor’s previous album, 2004’s The Marionette and the Music Box, was a 17-song concept album about a lost marionette trying to find the music box he/she/it called home, and featured a track called “Distraction. A Conflict of Interest. Enchanted by the Unicorn.” It gave credence to the notion that drugs can do serious damage to human beings. Astoundingly, given the premise, it was pretty good in spite of its pretentious/twee aspirations, and managed to present a series of coherent all-instrumental songs whose meaning/content was conveyed by the illustrations in the CD booklet. This time out Unwed Sailor mastermind Johnathon Ford is joined by Early Day Miner’s Dan Burton, who actually sings words on a couple tracks. But musically, it’s the same winning formula – ambient, brooding, mostly instrumental songs that are as dark and foreboding as they are lovely. There’s not much here that you can hum along with, but it’s perfectly wonderful mood music.

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