I live with several people and many things: my wife, our three children, a dog, two cats, five chickens, numerous fish, a dated wardrobe, and countless delusions. Among those delusions is an unwarranted—irrational!—belief that I will write long, detailed reviews of every album I deem worthy of such. Reality smirks at such excessive dreams, but I continue to harbor them. Still, I sometimes relent to reality, with gritted teeth and a fleeting snarl. So, what follows are short reviews of seven recently released albums (mostly downloads, actually) that share two qualities: they are not prog, and they are excellent. I should note that although the main focus of Progarchy.com (which I conceived and Brad birthed—ooh, that sounds a bit, uh, strange) is obviously prog, it is open to all forms of good music. Genre is of far lesser importance than quality. That said, let’s push “Play”.
• “Until The Quiet Comes” by Flying Lotus. This is my sort of electronica: richly detailed, sumptuous, quirky, edged with darkness, possessing a jazzy flair, and endlessly inventive. The jazzy element has a genealogy, as Steven Ellison (who is Flying Lotus) is the great-nephew of Alice Coltrane, wife of the late, legendary ‘Trane. Includes a track, “Electric Candyman”, with a certain Thom Yorke. A near perfect late night album, this rewards repeated listens.
• “3 Pears” by Dwight Yoakam. His music has always been lean and his lyrics dry, but the new twist is subtle: a warmth in both content and sound. An example of the first is “Waterfall”, which is playful, with a wry and wistful sense of joy. The second comes through in Yoakam’s superb vocals, set in arrangements that are fat-free and feature just the right amount of twang and reverb, with tasty touches of organ and piano. The man is a superior songwriter and this set is further proof that country music can be twangy and contemporary without being shallow and trendy.
• “Long Wave” by Jeff Lynne. A part of me was prepared to dislike this because it is a covers album and is quite short (barely 28 minutes). Yes, this is a rather nostalgic homage to songs Lynne grew up on (standouts include “She” and “Beyond the Sea”), but the wizard of ELO brings such an obvious love to the project, I was won over. It doesn’t hurt that it is impeccably sung, played and produced, with lush Lynne-harmonies and ELO-like arrangements that are all about the songs. Besides, if there is one thing Lynne’s music has always had, it was a sense of nostalgic melancholy and romantic regret. Short, bittersweet, and stellar.
• “Manu Katché” by Manu Katché. Who hasn’t this phenomenal drummer played with? Notable names include Peter Gabriel, Sting, Jeff Beck, Tears for Fears, Tori Amos, and about a billion others. This is Katché’s fourth disc for ECM, and each has been fabulous; this newest release is notable for its propulsive approach. As one reviewer noted (I’ve lost the link), this is perhaps the funkiest ECM album ever, the sort of playful, soulful jazz album that gives an assured nod to modern sounds (read: synths and loops), but is rooted in acoustic bliss, with plenty of warm horns and shimmering organ. Recommended for anyone who loves great jazz and anyone who needs an entry point for modern jazz that is equally brainy and passionate.
• “Albatross” by Big Wreck. I was oblivious to this fine group (a “neo-prog hard-rock outfit” according to AllMusic.com) until I stumbled upon this new release on emusic.com. Singer Ian Thornley brings Chris Cornell to mind with his powerful, expressive vocals, but is hardly a clone, nor does he try to be. Three successive songs—”Wolves”, “Albatross”, and “Glass Room”—are worth the price of admission. “Wolves” (see YouTube video), especially, is a dynamite track, a perfect four-minute modern rock song, with top-notch playing and subtle melody. One of my favorite releases of 2012.
• “Born to Sing: No Plan B” by Van Morrison. No need for a Plan B for the Belfast Cowboy because he is the supreme Celtic synthesist, so soaked in jazz, blues, roots, and early rock, he can sing about grass growing and it is magical (and, in that regard, reminds me of G.K. Chesterton). This jazz-oriented album, on the Blue Note label, is arguably his best in a decade; he sounds refreshed, focused, and even happy. The horn arrangements are special and the songs are leisurely without ever wandering, mellow without ever dragging. The real revelation here are Morrison’s horn-like vocals, which are strong, elastic, and restless. Great album by one of my favorite musicians.
• “Now Here This” by John McLaughlin and The 4th Dimension. Some fans of McLaughlin’s legendary projects from the 1960s and ’70s aren’t too taken with his recent albums, which often feature guitar-synth and other modern devices. But while this album is occasionally frenetic and has a very modern (and crisp) sound, the adjective that keeps coming to mind is “soulful.” This comes through more obviously when things slow down, as on the lovely “Wonderfall”. The guitar solos are technically brilliant of course, but also have passionate, hungry logic that cannot be denied. This is music for the mind and the soul, which is about the highest praise I can give it. Fantastic effort from the legendary axe man.