Artist: Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings
Title: 100 Days 100 Nights
Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings’ rise has been meteoric since 2005's Naturally, with the group establishing themselves as the first choice for producers in search of authentic retro-soul vibes. This follow-up continues their confident progress, the band equally adept at Northern Soul stompers such as “Tell Me”, and slow-burning Southern deep-soul such as “Humble Me”. There’s a dark, smoky quality to the slower arrangements, with the brass offering brooding punctuation in the classic Memphis Horns style favoured by Stax, and the guitar exhibiting the terse definition of Steve Cropper on tracks like “Be Easy”. Jones is a commanding presence, whether playing the sultry sex-kitten of “Let Them Knock”, or the wronged woman of “Nobody's Baby”.
Artist: To Rococo Rot
The commission behind To Rococo Rot's mini-album abc123 is the 50th anniversary of the Helvetica typeface. Stefan Schneider and the Lippok brothers decided to approach the project from a different aspect to their usual analogue synth set-up, opting for an entirely digital, in-computer technique which allowed speedier recording but made synching their parts more difficult. Hence the curious catch-up manner of the synth parts on tracks like “zigue zague”, and the free-jazz improvised-bass effect and erratic tambourine of “verschieden”. The eight short pieces range from the relaxed gamelan of metallic percussive tones and electro beats that constitutes “h5”, to the scuttling twitch-beats and graceful Seventies electronic tones of “enigma”, and most rewardingly the blend of synthetic doppler effects and twangy electro tones of “freitag”.
Artist: Orchestra Baobab
Title: Made In Dakar
Label: World Circuit
World Circuit boss Nick Gold seems to be trying to turn Senegal’s Orchestra Baobab into an African version of the Buena Vista Social Club. There’s a similar back-story of a legendary band fallen out of favour in their homeland, and a similarly relaxed command of music styles, some of which even have a crossover Cuban element – most notably the guajira rhythm underpinning “Cabral”. Elsewhere, the band effect a series of crossover hybrids – Afro-cha-cha-cha (“Jimin”), highlife-calypso (“Bikowa”), jazzy ska (“Colette”), and a salsa/mbalax rhythmic blend on "Ami Kita Bay". But the stand-outs are mostly straight Senegalese: mbalax love song “Ndeleng Ndeleng”, the seuruba beat of “Sibam”, and “Nijaay” on which guest vocalist Youssou N’Dour is ably supported by Barthelemy Attisso’s wah-wah guitar.
Artist: We Start Fires
Title: We Start Fires
Label: Hot Noise/|Independent
Becky Stefani, songwriter with We Start Fires, has a nice line in recycled pop cliches like “I can play you like a record, baby/I can read you like an open book”, but it’s debatable whether that’s quite enough to provide the spark of originality that might give the band a strong enough personality to develop in a more interesting direction. “Magazine” has a jerky electro-rock manner, while “Play You”, with its girl-group vocals, assertive sexuality and rock riff decked out in swooshes and swirls of synthesiser, offers the no-nonsense flipside to Goldfrapp. “Wicked Spell” is more considered, with a sleek synth pad and glockenspiel detailing, but the band seem more confident marshalling the striding techno riffs and buzzsaw punk guitars of tracks like “Let’s Get Our Hands Dirty” and “Wired”.
Title: Harmonia Live 1974
Rarely heard during their all-too-brief existence, Harmonia have become one of the legends of Krautrock. Featuring synth pioneers Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius, and former Kraftwerk guitarist Michael Rother, they released just two albums. This previously unreleased live recording captures them in typically relaxed mood, building long, contemplative pieces from cycling keyboard figures underpinned by primitive electronic percussion, over which Rother strings his eerie, snaking lines of treated electric guitar. “Ueber Ottenstein” is trance music made long before the term was coined, while “Veteranissimo”, features synths swelling and subsiding in waves as the percussion adopts a chugging steam-train pulse of the kind that Kraftwerk would later use to such devastating effect on “Trans-Europe Express”.
Artist: Various Artists
Title: Doom & Gloom
The notion of living on the eve of destruction may have reached its apogee in the Sixties, but apocalyptic fear was a popular interest long before then. Drawing together mostly pre-war folk, blues and country songs, Doom & Gloom confirms that bygone America was smitten by more than enough disasters to warm the heart of the most pessimistic balladeers. Floods were a notable feature, judging by the commentaries, the most notable being Charley Patton’s “High Water Everywhere” and Kansas Joe & Memphis Minnie’s “When The Levee Breaks”. Elsewhere, the downside of the era’s burgeoning prosperity was marked by the series of automobile accidents and train derailments favoured by early country acts such as Roy Acuff & His Crazy Tennesseans, whose “Wreck On The Highway” offers a textbook example of high-lonesome lamentation.
Artist: Ani DiFranco
Label: Righteous Babe
With a ferocious touring schedule and an output of 19 albums over 17 years, Ani DiFranco epitomises independent industry. This 2CD set is her first career retrospective, its 36 tracks drawn from as far back as 1993’s Puddle Dive and Like I Said albums, and as recent as last year's excellent Reprieve. It includes five tracks specially re-recorded for the occasion, notably a new version of “Napoleon” featuring Greg Dulli and Joseph Arthur, on which her sardonic sympathy for a friend screwed over by a major label gives a clear idea of her attitude towards the business. DiFranco’s music boasts a broad diversity of styles and approaches, from the sombre piano overture that introduces the reproachful “You Had Time”, to the organic folk-jazz arrangement of |“Millennium Theater”.
Artist: John Phillips
Title: John Phillips (John The Wolfking Of LA)
Label: SPV Yellow
As The Mamas And The Papas dissolved amid a soap-opera of adultery and drug addiction, songwriter John Phillips set about assembling material for his solo debut, which can be viewed as a foundation-stone of two important musical developments. On the one hand, it stands alongside Nashville Skyline and Sweetheart Of The Rodeo as a pioneering country-rock milestone, its laidback, pedal-steel-laced arrangements presaging the house style of David Geffen’s Asylum label. And through its depictions of the LA aristo-hipster lifestyle in songs such as “Malibu People”, it helped establish the whole “confessional” singer-songwriter genre that included the likes of Crosby, Stills, Nash, Young, Mitchell, Browne and Taylor.
Artist: Richmond Fontaine
Title: $87 And A Guilty Conscience...
Comprising eight music tracks and two videos, $87 And A Guilty Conscience... is an addendum to this year’s acclaimed Thirteen Cities album. Apart from “The Gits” – a coded tribute to Nirvana that previously appeared on a compilation – and “$87 And A Guilty Conscience”, which was on the original album, all the tracks are outtakes from the Thirteen Cities sessions, short tales featuring more of songwriter Willy Vlautin’s rootless drifters, losers and left-behind stragglers crawling across the underbelly of the American Dream. Set to the usual weary strums and occasional muted trumpet, the songs are flecked with geographical detail, though I wish that Vlautin would sing his stories occasionally, rather than just relate them.
Artist: Various Artists
When not serving as half of techno duo Two Lone Swordsmen, Andrew Weatherall is best known as a club DJ and producer, but for this compilation, he gives free rein to his interest in psychobilly, with a set that makes connections between rockabilly originals like Gene Vincent and later inheritors of the flick-knife rock’n’roll tradition such as The Cramps. It’s as expertly selected and sequenced as you'd expect, particularly a seven-track passage that takes us from Gene Vincent to Link Wray, by way of Johnny Burnette’s “Wampus Cat”, Charlie Feathers’ creepy “Jungle Fever”, a suitably greasy retread of “Jungle Rock” by Tav Falco and Panther Burns, and the lascivious “Snake Pit” by the splendidly-named Hipbone Slim and The Knee Tremblers. The perfect soundtrack to a John Waters movie, in other words.
Title: Oblivion With Bells
Label: Smith Hyde Productions
Oblivion With Bells is in part a return to Underworld’s core strengths, with trancescapes such as “Glam Bucket” and the sombre “To Heal” punctuating driving grooves such as “Crocodile”, which opens the album in a haze of mirrored synth tones before a typical Underworld techno chugger, albeit one with Karl Hyde’s vocals stacked into a Gregorian choir. “Beautiful Burnout” combines haunting Euro-thriller tonalities with hustling congas, before “Holding The Moth” likewise shifts between squelchy bass thump-beat and a more mellow cool-jazz groove. Lyrically, Hyde is again the unbiased observer, gazing at the “razor-wire beauty” of “Boy, Boy, Boy” and snatching dispassionate glimpses of abandoned supermarket trolleys on “Ring Road”.
Artist: Lloyd Price
Title: Lawdy Miss Clawdy
Label: SPV Blue
New Orleans pianist Lloyd Price had just turned 18 when he recorded the song which brought him his first hit in 1951, and which gives this collection its title. But his career was cut short by the army draft in 1953, and by the time he re-emerged in 1955, his labelmate and rival Little Richard had already assisted in the transformation of R&B into rock’n’roll. He would continue to score a few more hits but his career was effectively holed below the waterline. There’s not an awful lot of variety in these early sessions, but the sound he created with Dave Bartholomew’s band – an extension of the jump-blues style of The Treniers and Louis Jordan, augmented with the rolling rumba-rock second-line rhythms of his home town – would prove a significant force in the genesis of rock’n’roll, particularly when employed by protege Fats Domino.
Artist: Republic Of Loose
Label: Loaded Dice
Republic Of Loose are a nine-strong Irish outfit whose brazen sexual commentaries are set to energetic electro-funk grooves rooted in hip-hop attitude and soul power. Their general attitude on this debut album can best be summed up by “Comeback Girl”: “Drunk in the hallway, pissing in the doorway, finished with the foreplay, that's how I feel right now”. Impressively, they manage to keep it up, so to speak, for pretty much the entire album, Mik Pyro’s sly, devil-may-care raps borne along on assertive stomp-funk grooves like “The Translation”, “Somebody Screamed” and “Aaargh!” itself. It’s rowdy fun, but there are confusingly mixed messages: Pyro’s sexual appetite, he self-deprecatingly admits on “Greedy”, is out of all proportion to his own proportions; but that doesn’t stop him criticising a girl for accommodating a sleazeball in “Shame”.
Artist: Robert Wyatt
Robert Wyatt's first album for Domino comes in the form of a three-act “opera”, albeit one apparently lacking most of the usual features of that form, such as characters, narrative and drama. Using many of the musicians that worked on Cuckooland - including Paul Weller, Brian Eno, Annie Whitehead, Gilad Atzmon and Orphy Robinson – the tone is simultaneously dense but light, soothing but disturbing, as Wyatt poses love and principle as antidotes to the dangerous certitude of religious fundamentalists and the vote-catching machinations of professional politicians. Particularly powerful is “A Beautiful War”, whose deceptively smooth surface and charming manner disguises an airman’s exultation in his murderous task: “It’s a beautiful day... so I open the hatch and drop my first batch”.