Tortoise & Bonnie "Prince" Billy
The Brave and the Bold
Avis of Evol
It seems fitting that the thing that has kept me from posting is a gig teaching federal employees project management (for the well-executed response to a biological weapon attack, no less) that the two albums that bubble up to the top of the review stack are two very different albums from two very different project managers themselves. I was talking to a local musician recently about the creative process, and we came to the drunken conclusion that the successful artist working in the modern condition is largely a good curator: able to pick bits and pieces out of their favorite records to piece together a codied statement, and herein we describe the varying methods and success rates of two engaged in that very practice.
As I've said before, my Will Oldham (aka Bonnie "Pince" Billy) worship has been on the decline, but it was an excellent run while it lasted. I had big hopes for this cooperative effort by two groups that get underlooked because they are so "overrated." Tortoise catches anti-post-rock derision like a pricey tie catches soup , but I've always thought their take on fusion as pretty exciting. Here though on The Brave and the Bold, their considerable textural armada is reduced to a synth heavy Casio beatbox over which Oldham intones a number of cover songs. Neither sound particularly engaged in the affair while enacting the hipster resume of Devo, The Minutemen and Lungfish, but when they attack hoary chestnuts like Elton John's "Daniel" and especially Springsteen's "Thunder Road" the group makes some magic happen. Oldham has, to these ears, a particular talent at transformative covers (see his "Big Balls" (AC/DC), "Every Mothers Son" (Lynyrd Skynyrd) and even "Jingle Bells" for some prime examples.) "Thunder Road" is the one that actually takes the song further down its original path, adding just a touch more desperation than was present when The Boss was just an Assistant Team Leader. Still though, the album as a whole is a pleasing curiosity, and Oldham is best at being a curiosity. It's worth a listen, and holds promise that both of these "overrated" acts have a few more tricks up their sleeve.
Now plenty of artists have been vying for the Princedom Oldham has forged, and I think Pink Mountaintops' Stephen McBean, also of neo-acid rockers Black Mountain and relic Jerk With A Bomb, has a good shot. So many monikers, in fact his British invasion-meets-minimalist-new-wave Pink Mountaintops has in the past aliased as One Easy Skag. But as we are learning as more and more bands corporate-ize their various projects (it seems as that its no longer valid for one band to have many facets, instead, we are to funnel these into differently-named subsidiaries) the names become meaningless. What we have in Axis of Evol is a great little record: equal parts VU "White Light/White Heat" and Suicide's "Frankie Teardrop" - basically it's all kinds of ramshackle cool. The first track "Comas" keep proclaiming that "I'm not going down a highway to hell" but the languid defeat in his voice and the sedative drug-woozy guitar stumble says otherwise, and says it gloriously. It exists in that cartoon fog that The Brian Jonestown Massacre travels in, but it seems the Mountaintops is more of a personal vision than a semi-band. Tracks like "New Drug Queens" which pulse away with electric menace, punctuated by sonar blips from incoming fire from enemy spaceships, are the other side of this great record. MacBean is excellent in putting forth classic stoner rock while still sounding fresh and dangerous. The epic scale blues 101 riff on the 8-minute "Slaves" is like Sonic Youth's "Death Valley 69" ( whose album Evol surely inspired this album in more than title) taken to it final solution. Some may say; I've heard this done better in so many places, but fortunately rock music is not yet an emulsified "sport' to be wedged in an cheekily titled ESPN Zero program; its not a competition sport. There are plenty of fertile fields to plow with those same three goddamn chords and a tambourine, and Stephen MacBean just might be the guy that can see that project to completion.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com