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Swing States

By John Brodeur


OH (ohio) (Merge)


Kurt Wagner’s big band of the last 15 years return for another round of beautiful music with this, their ninth proper studio record. While it seems odd to call any work by this ever-morphing Nashville collective a “return to form,” OH (ohio) might be just that. With arrangements that are lush but not cluttered, and Wagner in fine form, the record recalls the band’s 2000 breakthrough, Nixon. If little else, this serves as a reminder that Wagner has the sparsely populated genre of country-soul mostly to himself, and rightfully so. For a man who once mused on “The Decline of Country and Western Civilization,” he’s certainly doing his best to keep it alive.

The title track (“Ohio”) plays out with Wagner’s clipped, characteristically understated baritone guiding a lounge-flavored track that’s somewhere between “The Girl From Ipanema” and early Willie Nelson. It’s only a hint of the soulful sweetness to come: “Slipped Dissolved and Loosed” softly shuffles forth, with a melody that ranks among Wagner’s most memorable. Quirky ballad “A Hold of You” soon follows with an almost unexpected tunefulness; it’s the album’s heart, if not its soul, with Wagner musing about the “crazy things” his pencil writes, wondering aloud, “Why can’t I get a hold of you?” as if he’s pondering the nature of his own creativity.

The best-titled songs here, “National Talk Like A Pirate Day” and “Sharing a Gibson with Martin Luther King, Jr.,” find the group picking things up a notch, with drummer Scott Martin giving the band a burst of forward momentum. Above the beat, the former song echoes a Kristofferson-esque melody, while the latter’s guitar arpeggios vaguely recall early R.E.M. (though probably not intentionally).

The album’s second half is more subdued, save for the out-of-nowhere, borderline-funk coda of “Popeye”—a song whose soft “sha-la-la” chorus is one of the record’s many little smile moments. “Of Raymond” is as close to a stock Lambchop song as they come: A subtle, acoustic-guitar-based verse opens into a Bacharachian orchestral melody, which in turn disappears back into the verse, introducing a plaintive piano pattern for just the final seconds. That’s what OH (ohio) is about: the passing moments, the afterthoughts that become hooks with repeated listens—and it’s worth taking the time to find them.

Gary Wilson

You Think You Really Know Me: The Gary Wilson Story (DVD/CD, Plexifilm)

Gary Wilson’s one album, You Think You Really Know Me, was released in 1977 and made it into the hands of a very small circle of musical explorers before it was reissued on CD a quarter-century later. Over the course of 74 minutes, filmmaker Michael Wolk examines the album and its creator’s curious journeys. Now issued as a DVD/CD set, it comes with extras to watch, and the original album can be heard in its entirety.

Wilson hailed from Endicott, a small city that by the ’70s could claim little more than being close to Binghamton, another municipality in decline. Sometime after his self-released album went more or less nowhere, Wilson moved to San Diego, managing to find aspects of this sunny California area that were most like his crumbling hometown, eventually working as a night shift manager of an adult book store. The now defunct Motel Records, a small but adventurous label in Los Angeles, decided to issue the album on CD and spent the better of a year tracking Wilson down. Wolk’s documentary follows Wilson’s reunion with his band, the Blind Dates, as they played a sold out show in New York City and then at a theater in Endicott. And the music? It’s a mix of tongue-in-cheek funk, Zappa-esque experimentation and lyrics that mix odes to unattainable women and horror films, all presented with the costumed antics of bored young (now decidedly middle-aged) men in a dying city.

—David Greenberger

Tom Verlaine

Dreamtime (Collector’s Choice)

Words From the Front (Collector’s Choice)

Tom Verlaine’s two Warner Bros. albums, now reissued on Collector’s Choice, are a study in his contrasting inclinations. Dreamtime, from 1981, came two years after his self-titled solo debut, and continues to explore taut combo guitar interplay. It is the concise nature of the songs that makes this such an enduring work. While lacking the audacious surprise that Television’s Marquee Moon was when it appeared in 1977, Dreamtime has aged just as well, with a timelessness borne of the directness of the sound and arrangements. When production flourishes do appear, they’re head-turning (such as the piano blossoming at the end of “Penetration”). Slashing and angular at times, many of the songs sound like they’d have been hits in a smarter, braver world.

Words From the Front suffers only by comparison, primarily by dint of its smaller, more condensed sound. Released in 1982, the set favors longer songs, with more oblique identities. Still a feast of guitars, aspects of the music were now pointing the way towards his instrumental and ethereal Warm and Cool a decade later.

—David Greenberger

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