Devendra Banhart: "Cripple Crow"
If “Cripple Crow” was re-packaged and released under the guise of another “lost classic” from the 1960’s, no one would be the wiser: using droning sitars, haunting harmonies that cascade behind fragile leads, chanting pseudo-sutras and the occasional scathing guitar-fill for good measure. Add a vague context of war-caused exhaustion and quirky social questioning, and this album lands in the world of Ken Kesey, San Berdoo, road trips through Big Sur country and run-in’s with Kerouac and Cassidy — a perfect romanticized launching pad for any “lost classic.”
In truth, “Cripple Crow” is the ethereal work of Devendra Banhart, a 23-year-old contemporary whose life has been split between time in Venezuela and Los Angeles. Duly noted by a handful of Spanish-sung tracks backed by flamenco guitar and South American folk tendencies, visions of Brazilian legends Caetano Veloso and the lighter side of Os Mutantes appear in these dreamy cuts ('Santa Maria de Feira,' 'Luna de Margarita'). But for the most part, this album rises above most obvious comparisons, save for a little Nick Drake and Incredible String Band. Banhart has created an organic work of tonal and lyrical stream of consciousness that will take you back to the oft-romanticized days of “free-spirit” 60’s, California.
With a lack of peaks and troughs in sound, the tracks work together to form a succinct listening experience. And for neo-psychedelic audiophiles looking for a “Sgt. Pepper’s” after-shock (note the album cover), “Cripple Crow” is more commune than carnival.
Devendra Banhart comes to the Birchmere on June 11 with guest The Magic Numbers. Visit www.birchmere.com.
—Christopher M. Staten
Pearl Jam: “Pearl Jam”
For Pearl Jam, releasing a self-titled album 15 years after they grand-mastered the grunge rock parade with "Ten" is an appropriate gesture, having slowly crafted a new identity for the last decade. They've weathered the lean years, a slew of post-"Vitalogy" efforts that rumbled in the background while the Korn Bizkits limped their way up the charts. They've sunk Phish as the most fanatically followed live touring band. And on "Pearl Jam," the band has created a socially conscious rock rant that re-establishes how vital it still is.
How ironic that at a time when Neil Young — Pearl Jam's sonic grandfather — releases an album of obvious, subtle-as-a-2-by-4-to-the-skull protest rock, PJ manages to attack American foreign policy with pinpoint accuracy. "World Wide Suicide" is a pro-soldier punk assault on the War in Iraq; "Marker in the Sand" is a lament about feeling powerless to end it ("A sickness coming over me/Like watching freedom/Being sucked straight out to sea").
Lead howler Eddie Vedder is at his best when exploring specific characters, as in "Army Reserve" and on "Unemployable," perhaps the best Urge Overkill song Urge Overkill never stuck around to write. And Pearl Jam is at its best at the end of the album with the knockout punches "Come Back" (a slow-dance, tear-jerker reminiscent of "Yellow Ledbetter") and "Inside Job," the 6-minute epic finale. "Let me run into the rain/To shine a human light today," Vedder sings, as "Pearl Jam" finishes with more humanity and relevance than the band's had in years.
— Greg Wyshynski
Sugarplum Fairies: “Country International Records”
Even the name, “Country International Records,” heralds an album of wider scope than the Sugarplum Fairies’ sophomoric “Introspective Student Raincoat Music.” But similarities outnumber the differences between the collections.
Silvia Ryder’s ragged-but-comforting vocals are still enchanting, and guitarist Ben Bohm has only gotten better at showing his too-good-to-be-kept-in-the-garage skill without drowning the vocals. Their lyrics are what e. e. cummings would have written if he was trying to get signed to a record label, and the songs create real, identifiable characters, like the titular ‘Velcro Girl’ and ‘Weird Girl.’
However, “Country International Records” rises to the expectations the title implies. ‘When You’re Mean’ and ‘Summerland’ both find Ryder trading in a little bit of her smoky almost-monotone for a hint of Nashville, and the change is echoed in Bohm’s guitar. Likewise, references to Japan-based cosmetics company Shiseido and 19th-century French poet Arthur Rimbaud provide some international flair. And at the end of the album, defying categorization, is a cover of U2’s ‘All I Want Is You.’
The main complaint about the album is that there’s too little of it. Only 10 songs means there’s a paltry 32 minutes of music. And with summer coming, everyone could use more SPF.
— Meghan Williams
The Dresden Dolls: "Yes, Virginia..."
The Dresden Dolls define their style as "Brechtian punk cabaret," dress like goth mines and bang out piano-and-drum songs about transsexuals, alcoholism and loose women. They're also damn good, blending cynical writing with manic melodies to create an album that shocks as it struts.
On "Yes, Virginia...," the Boston-based duo of Amanda Palmer (lead vocals, piano and the primary songwriter) and Brian Viglione (percussion, the few moments of guitar) have 13 acts in a sprawling cabaret that balances character vignettes with snarky rants about commercialization and betrayal of trust. It's an uneven staging: the blistering opener "Sex Changes" precedes "Backstabber," a tepid screed against former friends, while the middle of the album just seems like one long maudlin song. It's a shame, because these Dolls shine like diamonds on "Modern Moonlight," an attack on an entire generation of technological zombies; and on "Dirty Business," a brilliant dissertation on girlfriends from hell.
While Viglione adds valuable support, Palmer is the star of this cabaret — sounding a little Aimee Mann, a little Justine Frischmann from Elastica. And just as you're about to bid adieu to this collection of R-rated double-entendres, piano explosions and depressing near-misses, along comes the curtain call: "Sing," a beautiful call-to-arms for the silent majority. "There is this thing keeping everyone's lungs and lips locked/It is called fear and it's seeing a great renaissance," Palmer sings, later adding that "life is no cabaret." Perhaps, but with sharp observations and uncomfortable truths, The Dresden Dolls make the case that it should be.
— Greg Wyshynski