Walking Into Clarksdale
Jimmy Page and Robert Plant have produced some of the best rock albums of all time. Walking Into Clarksdale isn't one of them. Twenty years ago, during the heyday of Led Zeppelin, Page was a lot slimmer, and Plant had a high-pitched, unpredictable edge that you wouldn't want him even to attempt today. Still, Clarksdale, the first collection of all-new material by Page and Plant since 1979, is a success. It may lack the lightning of the glory days, but it has some of the old thunder.
Page can still make a Les Paul shimmer, and Plant, who may have lost an octave (or two), still has one of the thickest, gnarliest voices in rock. Clarksdale is laden with large doses of crisp, disconnected guitar riffs and Plant's sultry crooning. In typical Zep fashion, the songs shift moods on a dime. Page goes from melodious acoustic strumming to hard electric hammering, and Plant follows suit, alternating between tender dalliances and bold declarations.
Clarksdale opens with "Shining in the Light," built on the classic Led Zeppelin model: an acoustic-guitar shuffle, tight chord changes, flowing strings, and a catchy chorus carried by Plant's voice. "When the World Was Young" is decidedly Eastern-influenced, while "Blue Train" is a mellow, six-minute-plus jam built around a simple drum rhythm and bass groove. Pretty, bluesy, single-note guitar work by Page abounds, and, again the lustrous chorus is shouldered by the unique tone of Plant's voice.
Among these tracks are some dynamic rockers, including "When I Was a Child," in which Page's trademark vibrato guitar enhances the pensive lyrics: "Once I was a soldier/In my castle strong/Oh, I stood so tall then/I could do no wrong/Innocence and slumber/When I was a boy." It may not be poetry, but Led Zeppelin always had a knack for making its overblown imagery sound impressive. The lyrics even attempt wit: On the wistful "Please Read the Letter," Plant laments, "There's nothing here that's left for you/But check with Lost and Found."
Touring to support the album, Page and Plant will perform at the Miami Arena Friday, May 22. They'll probably serve up a plateful of oldies, but this material ain't chopped liver, either. Clarksdale is a laudable effort. There isn't even a gimme cover-song among the twelve tracks to indicate that Page and Plant gave anything less than 100 percent. OK, the song doesn't exactly remain the same. But why should it?
-- Jonathan Lesser
Country Blues: Complete Early Recordings (19271929)
Recorded more than 70 years ago and originally pressed into pancake-thick records that were spun on hand-cranked Victrolas, the songs of Dock Boggs have survived the ravages of time with uncommon relevance. A precursor to artists such as Howlin' Wolf, Bob Dylan, and even Nick Cave, Boggs sang tunes that resonate at strange and disturbing frequencies. Country Blues features a dozen gems from the '20s, elaborately packaged with a 64-page hardcover book. The disc tells Boggs' story better than any release to date.
A part-time coal miner and full-time whiskey bootlegger, Boggs lived a violent, turbulent life in the mountains along the Virginia-Kentucky border. As fast with a gun as with a banjo, Boggs was the musical alter ego of the angelic Carter Family, Appalachia's much-loved country music group. While the Carters were steeped in religious faith and a tightly knit community, Boggs saw an indifferent god who reigned over hell on Earth.
With a voice like loose change rattling in a Mason jar, Boggs sang of the poverty and starkness of the pre-Depression South. Songs such as "Danville Girl" and "New Prisoner's Song" are devoid of emotion and awash in moral ambiguity. Boggs sounds both untrustworthy and frighteningly detached from his surroundings.
If Boggs had a good side, you would have wanted to be on it. His murder ballads, such as "Pretty Polly" and "Hard Luck Blues," hinge on sudden violence that chills the spine and cuts to the marrow. Boggs' ashes-to-ashes delivery gives the mayhem of these narratives a dust-to-dust delivery that takes on a distinctly sinister edge. No doubt Boggs' compelling performances will continue to resonate for at least another 70 years.
-- John Lewis
Love Nut's second release, Baltimucho, makes the band sound like musical Luddites compared to the waves of ambient, electronica, synthesizer-worshiping, overproduced, and DJ-spawned music filling the shelves lately. In the tradition of the Ramones and the Buzzcocks, this four-piece band from Baltimore ("Baltimucho" is local slang for the city) cranks out punchy melodies propped up by a solid guitar-and-backbeat foundation. The result is an album of fifteen catchy songs that barge in without knocking and leave well before they wear out their welcome.
None of the songs delves into weighty issues, but that's not what guitar rock is for. Instead, Love Nut sticks to the tried-and-true territories of love, longing, and loss. Andy Bopp, on lead vocals, manages to deliver the corniest lines ("She doesn't even know she's gonna bring me down," from "Foolish Game") without sounding saccharine or trite. "Love Found You" is the kind of stick-in-your-head melody that Squeeze used to do so well. "Falling Down" boasts an edgy guitar riff and some razor-sharp lyrics ("Who am I to pontificate?/The words are all too big for you"). Even the band's ballads ("Foolish Game" and "Message") have a certain bite to them, thanks in large part to the crisp, energetic production of Ed Stasium, who's worked with the Ramones, the Smithereens, and Talking Heads.
If stripped-down, charged-up rock 'n' roll is considered old-fashioned, then Baltimucho is about as retro as it gets. But given the canned altrock that's on the charts these days, Love Nut sounds positively refreshing.
-- Liesa Goins
It was inevitable that electronica, a musical genre that develops and changes faster than most tropical viruses, would eventually start recycling itself. That's not necessarily a bad thing. The commercial success of bands such as Prodigy, Fatboy Slim, and the Crystal Method has inspired countless imitators who try to jump ahead of the pack with faster rhythms and more outlandish sound effects. But electronica, just like old-fashioned rock 'n' roll, has basic ingredients that haven't changed much over the years.
Daum Bentley, otherwise known as Freaky Chakra, knows this. A San Francisco-based DJ who signed to Astralwerks in 1994, Bentley strips electronica down to its shining wires on Blacklight Fantasy, his second release for the label. There's always been roots-rock, but this is roots-electronica: simple, basic, and gritty, with echoes of early Krautrock outfits (Can, Kraftwerk), new-wave novelty bands (Dominatrix, the Normal), and overlooked pioneers (Walter Carlos, Jean Michel Jarre).
The album begins with "Downspace," an eight-minute track of dark, metallic drum 'n' bass -- what used to be called "techstep," back when every new electronica style needed a name -- rounded out by little more than a keyboard melody, a recurring horn section, and the occasional tribal grunt. This song segues evenly into the next, an even more primitive slice of rhythm called "Automatic." As the album progresses, Bentley whittles his songs down to mere digital pulses and only one or two decorative noises.
"Fascist Funk" comes almost midway through the album, and it's an attention-grabbing centerpiece, built around an unpleasant and almost ceaseless buzzing noise. Rhythmic clacking and clanging noises echo hollowly in the dark while a gurgling, computerized voice swallows and vomits its own words. That's about all there is to it, but it creates a nightmarish atmosphere of systems gone hopelessly haywire. It's simple and brilliant.
As Blacklight Fantasy draws to a close, the songs grow slightly more complex and moody. The acid-jazzy "Year 2000" travels along like the sound of passing cars, "Hyperspace" borders on gentle synth-pop, and "Platform" boasts several layers of mellifluous keyboard melodies. The album ends with the title track, a wistful soundscape with dramatic chord-changes and a galloping rhythm -- the kind of thing Jean Michel Jarre and Giorgio Moroder did so well in the '70s and '80s. It's unarguably corny and undeniably nice to hear again, like most of Blacklight Fantasy. Somehow, by reaching back into the not-so-distant past, Bentley has come up with a form of electronica that sounds brand-new.
-- Rafer Guzman