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Playing Games

By David Greenberger

Fairport Convention

What We Did On Our Holidays (Water)

Unhalfbricking (Water)

As lasting and resonant as the music is from Fairport Convention’s first half-decade, they were a band in continuous flux. Perhaps it was the instability of their lineup that brought more to bear on the work at hand. The year 1969 brought forth three albums that found the band moving from a love of American music and songwriters to their own British roots and a growing confidence in their own writing. The first two of those have been newly reissued, appended with liner notes, and laudably left with their original running order intact—no “bonus” tracks to muddy the impact of the band’s original intent.

What We Did on Our Holidays was Fairport’s second album and marked the first appearance of Sandy Denny. Already a presence on the U.K. folk scene, she sounds positively energized to be in the midst of these vibrant tempos and arrangements. Recorded when he was just 19, Richard Thompson’s “Meet On The Ledge” marks his emergence as a writer, having already demonstrated his unique voice as a guitarist on their debut a year prior. Ironically, when this album was first released in the United States, it was given a different cover, and the title was dropped in favor of just the band’s name. A&M, their stateside label, apparently found the title too English, using the word “holiday” where Americans would say “vacation.” However, it was the growing strength of their British identity that was forging the band’s enduring character.

Appearing a mere half-year later was Unhalfbricking. The title resulted from playing a word game called Ghosts in which players need to avoid completing a real word, and this fictitious 14-letter verb was coined by Sandy Denny. In keeping with what was becoming a default tradition, the band’s personnel was changing with each new release. Finding his interests in poppier material no longer shared by his cohorts, Ian Matthews was ousted (though he sings one of the set’s three Dylan numbers, “Percy’s Song”). The disc also includes two pivotal entries in the band’s catalog: Denny’s aching and wise “Who Knows Where the Time Goes,” and the band’s arrangement of “A Sailor’s Life.” This traditional song was a foretaste of what was to follow with Leige and Leif at the end of this same year.

Stebmo

Stebmo (Southern Lord)

Not sure who I should glow about first: Matt Chamberlain, whose drumming charged Critters Buggin’, Brad Mehldau’s groundbreaking “Largo,” and, most recently, Marco Benevento’s future-classic Invisible Baby (not to mention countless pop acts over the last few decades); Todd Sickafoose, who helped fashion Ani DiFranco into more than a volatile folkie; or Eyvind Kang, who has arranged strings for John Zorn and Laurie Anderson. To be fair, though, this is Steve Moore’s disc; having cut his teeth with everyone from Sufjan Stevens to black-metal avatars Sunn O))) and Skerik’s Syncopated Taint Septet, this is his premier indie-jazz offering. With modest, patient melodies, Moore’s piano is a lattice for meandering clarinet and viney string parts. It’s tender yet unafraid of shadowy terrain. In fact, it’s Moore’s use of the full color wheel that makes this one stand out, all within a concise pop framework.

—Josh Potter

Jim Noir

Jim Noir (Barsuk)

The name may not ring a bell, but if you watched television anytime during 2007’s gift-giving season, you probably already know Jim Noir’s music, at least subliminally, from the relentless cycle of Target ads that revamped his 2005 single “My Patch” into a catchy paean to conspicuous consumption.

Jim Noir (the stage name for 27-year-old Englishman Alan Roberts) crafted this sophomore release entirely by himself, and it’s cut from the same cloth as fellow Brian Wilson acolytes Caribou and Badly Drawn Boy: slightly psychedelic keyboards and guitars, propulsive drum programming and singsong choral melodies that conjure up some impossible land where every day is cloudless and 75 degrees. (These bedroom music geniuses tend to be from some place dreary—In Noir’s case, Manchester, England.)

Noir often does a remarkable job of making his songs sound like they were cut by a live band, particularly the first single “What U Gonna Do,” with its prickly blues-rock guitar licks, and the epic “On a Different Shelf,” an anthemic album closer worthy of comparison to the late, lamented Beta Band. “Look Around You” out-Corals the Coral at their own game (namely, wistful rock inspired by the Zombies), while “Happy Day Today,” my favorite, sounds like a lost Beach Boys track from the Carl Wilson-fronted Surf’s Up-era. Such is the danger of being your own writer, performer and producer: If an artist like this doesn’t have the strong persona of a Prince, Brian Wilson, or Stevie Wonder, listening to a contempo home-studio auteur’s work becomes more akin to a target practice game of Spot the Influence. Maybe next time around Noir can enlist his friends and touring buddies Super Furry Animals to help craft a music that, ironically, may sound more original than the very good, albeit derivative, product he currently comes up with all by his lonesome.

—Mike Hotter


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