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Mystic Magic
By Carlo Wolff

Robert Plant and Strange Sensation

Mighty Rearranger (Sanctuary)

Robert Plant is aging better than well. He has produced his best album since Now and Zen in Mighty Rearranger, a seamless, organic exploration of African rhythms, barrelhouse rhythm & blues, mystical lyrics and the blues Plant uses as a touchstone.

Backed by the band who helped modernize Dreamland, Plant’s curious covers album of 2002, Plant proves he still commands the dreamy, authoritative voice that has made his career so fascinating. It’s weathered, and the high notes aren’t there, but he doesn’t need them.

The tunes are fine and diverse: “Another Tribe” launches the album in rich, cosmic style, “Tin Pan Valley” deepens and personalizes it, “All the King’s Horses” is a ballad so plaintive it brings tears, and “The Enchanter” memorializes that medieval muse of Plant’s who figured in Led Zeppelin tunes such as “Ballad of Nevermore” and “Stairway to Heaven.”

The mysticism and open-endedness that make Plant’s voice so transporting pepper the hippie, sweet “Shine It All Around” and kick “Freedom Fries” into high gear. Plant drops low in “Somebody Knocking,” the bluesiest track; the last part of the album is heavily bluesified and just as heavily idiosyncratic. The title tune is jaunty and oracular, sparked by Plant’s proud vocals and John Baggott’s swirled, boogie keyboards; the closer is “Brother Ray,” a brief, wordless Ray Charles homage that dances the album down elegant and wild.

This is an album of pride and power, not ego. Strange Sensation are a terrific band (the members are alumni of Roni Size and Portishead, among others) who feel no need to show off; don’t look for solos here. Plant, too, is authoritative but not overbearing. Seems the white magic he used to embody in Led Zeppelin doesn’t require the black-magic counterpoint of guitarist Jimmy Page after all. Plant, that rock god of the ’60s and ’70s, has never sounded freer or earthier.

Melodrome

Happens While You Blink (Soultube Music)

Housatonic, Mass.-based trio Melodrome’s third release is a wondrous combination of the literate, the sublime, and nerve-tearing rawness. Singer-songwriter and guitarist Robbie Baier somehow combines the piss of Stiv Bator, the swagger of Jagger, and the majesty of say, Leonard Cohen and Johnette Napolitano into perfect exploding pop-rock bombs that say what needs to be said and move on. Familiar pop conventions and sounds are introduced, chopped, combined, and pasted, resulting in 12 songs that are at once easy on the ears and challenging on the first listen, and stay that way through the 20th. Bassist Jesko Stahl and drummer Matt Stahl play minimally and within the often deceptively nonlinear songs, and throw in backing vocals that recall Philly soul, Lennon and McCartney and (I’ll be damned!) even N*Sync. The result is the sound of a thinking, organic, fire-breathing band who are way more than the sum of their parts, which is rare these days, and virtually unheard of on a local recording. Every song swings for the fences, and whether railing about a lost lover (the jarringly persona1 “North Dakota”) or wooing a new one (“The Making Of”), every song hits its mark.

The first thousand copies of Happens While You Blink are packaged in hand-sewn recycled LP jackets. Mine’s a Mantovani. This disc stands up against any rock record you’ll hear anywhere. In other words, if this had come out a month ago on a major label, with a video placed on Fuse, and the usual half-a-mil spent on indie promo, it would be platinum right now. It’ll take something awfully bodacious to knock this off my best-record-of-2005 pick.

—Paul Rapp

Archer Prewitt

Wilderness (Thrill Jockey)

Archer Prewitt’s fourth full-length release continues an evolution that began with the swirling small-combo grooves of his 1997 debut In the Sun, gave way to the subtle complexities of White Sky two years later, followed by the downright joyous and crackling pop of Three. Wilderness finds him teamed up with old Coctails bandmate (recently reunited for a series of dates) Mark Greenberg, drummer Chris Manfrin, and Dave Crawford, who contributes keyboards, horn and string arrangements. Where Prewitt’s other band, the Sea & Cake, place guitar rhythms and patterns front and center, here the guitar-based songs are written and arranged with an orchestral propriety. There’s a symphonic sweep, but it maintains a human scale. Clocking in at just over five minutes, the multipart “O, Ky” is a veritable tour of Prewitt’s rich sensibilities, mixing string passages with bare-bones guitar, and tying it together with a resilient sense of purpose and identity, straightforwardly sung with honest commitment.

—David Greenberger


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