Artist: Levon Helm
Title: Dirt Farmer
The last time I met Levon Helm, he was battling throat cancer and could barely croak, let alone sing; but he's a battler, and a few years on, his voice is restored to something like the weatherbeaten glory of "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down". Not only that, but it's used here in a context that makes a virtue of its hoarse earthiness, on a series of brooding country ballads and blues, many illustrating the plight of the rural underclass. Encouraged by his daughter Amy to record some of the old songs he learned as a child, Helm enlisted as producer the former Dylan sideman Larry Campbell, who brought the full gamut of his abilities to the sessions, sprinkling mandolin, fiddle, dulcimer and guitars over traditional songs. It's a wonderfully evocative affair, Helm's distinctive gnarled tones bringing the old times to life as vividly as any documentary film.
Artist: Enter Shikari
Title: The Zone
Label: Ambush Reality
The Zone is sub-titled "A Mini Album full of B-sides and Rarities" , which is just as well, since with the exception of the Routron 5000 stomping disco remix of "Adieu", it's hard to see any of these eight tracks making much impression on the singles charts. They're just too convoluted and unsettled, rarely establishing a distinct tone or tune before discarding it in favour of some new direction. The demos of "The Feast" and "Enter Shikari" are unrestrained kitchen-sink rock, with everything thrown in regardless of aptness: thrash-metal riffing, shouty vocals, prog-rock keyboards, flurries of rapid-fire lead guitar. "Keep It On Ice" and "Sorry You're Not A Winner" both suffer from unfocused prog-metal arrangements. And frankly, using the word " pretentious" in the latter is the kind of hostage to fortune that they could do without.
Artist: The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion
Title: Jukebox Explosion (Rockin' Mid-90s Punkers!)
Label: In The Red
From their inception in the early Nineties, The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion began the Jukebox Singles series, a sequence of almost invisibly rare seven-inchers based on a similar series recorded in the Seventies by mutant rockabilly godfather Charlie Feathers. Fast, furious, and only occasionally troubling the three-minute barrier, the five singles are compiled here along with their B-sides and eight previously unreleased tracks. Titles such as "Get With It", "Dig My Shit", "Latch On" and " Push Some Air" accurately reflect Spencer's expostulatory vocal manner. A great cover too, featuring the band as zombies busily interring the era's shoddy grunge and Britpop favourites beneath a wreath reading "Good Riddance". Amen to that.
Artist: The Quantic Soul Orchestra
Label: Tru Thoughts
Tropidelico is a pan-ethnic crossover album blending infectious Latin American rhythms with punchy rock and funk elements. The title-track is typical, with plenty of congas and shaker percussion underscoring the tart brass riffing and Alfredo Linares' fruity Cubano-style piano vamps, before tenor sax and producer Will Holland's own jazz guitar take brief solos. "Panama City" has more of a James Brown/Ohio Players type of funk groove, while "Los Olvidados" and "San Sebastian Strut" make the most of twitchy cumbia rhythms, and Fela Kuti-esque Afrobeat drives " Marrakech". The tracks were assembled across several continents by Holland, skilfully blending the players' different inclinations.
Artist: The Royal We
Title: The Royal We
Label: Geographic Music
Some albums serve as little more than audio diaries, offering a snapshot of a scene at a specific time and place – in the case of this sole release from The Royal We, the last couple of years in Glasgow. These eight tracks are informed by the sweet, arty spirit of recent Glaswegian music – particularly Belle & Sebastian – and make up in enthusiasm for what they lack in technique, with the community-singing chorale of "Willy" and the "home sweet home" sentiments and ukelele-led arrangement of "Back And Forth Forever" perhaps the most evident illustrations of the band's charm. Chris Isaak's "Wicked Game" is treated to a perky indie makeover of guitar and fiddle, and "I Hate Rock N Roll" features the great line "so sexy, like T Rex-y, put that body away"; but the best track is single "All The Rage", with its quirky, rising arpeggios and "doot-doo-wah" scat chorus.
Artist: The Sadies
Title: New Seasons
Label: Yep Roc
Canadian country-rockers The Sadies don't seem to have been around long enough to be on their fifth studio album. A brief burst of bluegrass opens proceedings before "The First Inquisition (Pt. IV)", a lolloping rocker in Gun Club style, sets the tone for the rest of the album, with its brimstone backing and theological musings. It's just one of several dark portents shadowing the album: God reappears in "The Trial", while the titular subject of "Anna Leigh" has a well-founded premonition of disaster. Elsewhere, romantic breakdowns stymie best intentions in various songs, though the arrangements are never less than stylish, in a psychedelic Byrds vein: "Yours To Discover" has the enigmatic charm of a Gene Clark composition, while the dizzy country picking on " What's Left Behind" resembles Clarence White's virtuoso work with McGuinn and Co.
Artist: The Springfields
Title: On An Island Of Dreams
Label: RPM Retrodisc
Dusty Springfield was first introduced to the world as one third of her brother Tom's folk group The Springfields. Their entire output is crammed onto two discs here, with hootenanny standards like "Lonesome Traveller" and the rousing "Greenback Dollar" nestling alongside folk-club favourites like "Goodnight Irene" and "Where Have All The Flowers Gone", and material reflecting a more internationalist approach to folk music, such as "Tzena Tzena" and "Swahili Papa". Dusty's great talent can be gauged by the way that she brings heart, soul and smiles to even the corniest old chestnuts, and hoists the trio's best songs – notably the hits "Say I Won't Be There" and the wistful "Island Of Dreams" – to another level.
Judging by their sleeve photos, Teenager's Nick Littlemore and Pip Brown are teenagers only in the same sense that Sonic Youth are youthful: in the musical sense. Recorded with a string of collaborators including the Youth's Lee Ranaldo and Steve Shelley, Thirteen offers a bohemian blend of chipper electro ("West") and languid Goth disco-pop ("Alone Again")t. Twenty-five years ago, they'd have been an archetypal Mute Records band; now, it's somewhat harder to hear beyond the echoes of earlier new-wave innovators such as Pixies and Cabaret Voltaire. The best track, "Mr Booze", is a lumbering punk-funk groove whose predatory swagger is slashed by the astringent guitar lines of former Birthday Party guitarist Rowland S. Howard.
Artist: Sebastien Teller, Mr Oizo & Sebastian
Title: Music from the motion picture Steak
Label: Because/Ed Banger
Following Daft Punk with Electroma, Quentin Dupieux – aka Mr Oizo – is the latest French techno artist to direct their own film. Steak is apparently a near-future fantasy about a culture peopled by perpetual teenagers who eschew smoking and beards in favour of milk and cardigans. For this soundtrack, Dupieux has roped in hip producers Sebastian Teller and SebastiAn. The latter's main contribution is "Arrival", the creepy processional which opens proceedings; Teller's palette extends from the prog-rock of "Itea" to the vibrato guitar piece "Stadium" , while Oizo himself specialises in electro-disco ("Skatesteak"). But the most satisfying tracks occur when Oizo and Teller work together.
Artist: Allen Toussaint
Title: What Is Success
Allen Toussaint had already established himself, through his work with Chris Kenner, Ernie K-Doe, Irma Thomas, The Meters and especially Lee Dorsey, as New Orleans' most gifted young writer/producer when, in 1970, he made his second album Toussaint, subsequently reissued as From A Whisper To A Scream and now, with extra tracks, as What Is Success. Originally released with separate vocal and instrumental sides, it's been re-arranged here to its benefit, with Toussaint's own versions of Dorsey hits like "Everything I Do Gonh Be Funky", "Get Out Of My Life Woman" and " Working In The Coalmine" mingled with instrumentals such as "Cast Your Fate To The Wind" and his own "Louie". It's a sustained lesson in how to develop localised quirks into appealing pop hooks, without any loss of integrity.
Title: Vapour Trails
Label: Crammed Discs
As they celebrate their 30th Anniversary – in itself an extraordinary achievement for a peripatetic art-rock group whose four members live as far apart as Mexico, Belgium, America and Greece - Tuxedomoon continue to explore the uncharted territory between pop, classical, chamber-jazz, techno and the avant-garde. Recorded in Athens, Vapour Trails offers a succession of intriguing musical sketches whose eclecticism recalls Can: opener " Muchos Colores", for instance, adds clarinet and flugelhorn to a bed of piano and moaning violin. Elsewhere, "Dizzy" blends blip-beat rhythms with abstract sonic bricolage and "Big Olive", their tribute to Athens, threads flugelhorn over a wiry Beefheartian guitar stomp. An absorbing blend of opposites: the raw and the cooked, industry and reflection, ancient and modern.
Artist: Various Artists
Title: Your Time Is Gonna Come: The Roots of Led Zeppelin 1964-69
Presumably released to capitalise on the forthcoming reunion show, this compilation draws together strands of the future Zep-men's early careers, predominantly the session work of Jimmy Page, who was all over Sixties beat music, adding acoustic 12-string to the Kinks' "I'm A Lover Not A Fighter", rousing slide guitar to Heinz's "Diggin' My Potatoes", and fuzztone electric (in 1964!) to Carter-Lewis & The Southerners' "Skinny Minnie". Robert Plant, meanwhile, added his distinctive larynx to recordings with Brit-blues godfather Alexis Korner, whilst the Zep line-up finally slotted together on sessions with P. J. Proby before Page's chum Lord Sutch became the last beneficiary of their talents.
Artist: Dwight Yoakam
Title: Dwight Sings Buck
Label: New West
These days, you're more likely to encounter Dwight Yoakam on the silver screen, usually playing some backwoods baddie, than in record-shop racks, but he still finds time in his busy schedule to record the occasional album. Dwight Sings Buck does exactly what it says on the spine, with Yoakam reinterpreting a bunch of songs by his hero Buck Owens, the godfather of Bakersfield country boogie. Triggered by Owens's death in March 2006, and recorded by Yoakam's live band, it surprisingly marks the first time he had covered his mentor's songs, since their 1988 hit duet "The Streets Of Bakersfield". Uptempo Owens standards such as "Down On The Corner Of Love" and "Act Naturally" seem custom-built for Yoakam's vocals. By contrast, "Close Up The Honky Tonks" is given a slower, more reflective treatment.
Artist: John Fahey
Title: Fare Forward Voyagers
Chastened by the failure of his brief tenure at Warner Brothers, guitar genius John Fahey retreated to his natural home at Takoma Records armed just with his trusty Thirties Gibson to record the three long solo pieces that comprise Fare Forward Voyagers (Soldier's Choice). Threading intricate, cyclical skeins of fingerpicking around subtle themes that aren't so much tunes as evolving melodic tropes, they draw together Fahey's blues and raga influences into emollient but absorbing passages which bend time both in terms of tempo and ancestry. The album and track titles are taken from Eliot's Four Quartets, though the recording was originally dedicated to "my guru, Swami Satchidananda" – which Fahey later admitted was merely a ruse to assist in his seduction of Swami's secretary.Reuse content