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A Head of His Time

By Mike Hotter

Bonnie “Prince” Billy

Beware (Drag City)

A recent career-encompassing profile of Will Oldham in The New Yorker hinted that the Bonnie One was pulling out all the stops for this, his 14th full-length studio album (that number more than doubles if you count EPs and compilations). There does seem to be some sort of “summing up” going on: The Nashville sound of Sings Greatest Palace Music returns, leavened with the country-folk toughness that was once the bread and butter of Oldham and his compadres. Jennifer Hutt on violin and Emmett Kelly on guitar and keys, both of whom perform (and sing) spectacularly throughout, go a long way toward restoring the strong instrumental counterbalance that has been missing when a David Pajo or a Matt Sweeney wasn’t around.

But this album also goes new places: Cornet and sax solos accentuate a couple of tunes, while exotic instruments like bass guimbri and marimba give the music a sensuality that’s been missing since Ease Down the Road. Closing number “Afraid Ain’t Me” is simply one of the best things Oldham has recorded in a decade, some sort of testament before God and humanity sung over a simmering Eastern-tinged groove and modality, with achingly beautiful flute playing by one Nicole Mitchell.

The ribald lyrics of the past are for the most part absent, though love as a puzzle to be figured out is still the overriding theme. Carried over from 2008’s Lie Down in the Light is a deep appreciation for familial bonds and a grand generosity. “There Is Something I Have to Say” is this album’s “Black” or “Grand Dark Feeling of Emptiness,” a staring down of the darkness that comes at 4 AM. “I Am Goodbye” could conceivably get some mainstream radio airplay; the corresponding video of Oldham walking the streets of Los Angeles in full hobo beard, and star-and- crescent T-shirt, is a characteristic nose-thumb at the fact that this almost certainly will never happen.

It is far from perfect, and not a masterpiece, but Beware proves a worthy addition to a canon brimming over with perplexing beauty.

Pearl Jam

Ten (Legacy Edition) (Epic/Legacy)

One of the biggest-selling “alternative” albums of all time is finally ripe for reissue, and, 18 years after its release and subsequent explosion, Pearl Jam’s Ten may finally be in a position where hindsight can treat it fairly. For, particularly if you were a teenager with any feelings of disenfranchisement in the early 1990s, you most likely hold a special place in your heart for this record. Unless of course you were one of those who decried it as overdramatic, bombastic, or “classic rock” (the latter of which would later be used in the album’s defense).

Well, yes. Ten is overdramatic, and bombastic, and pretty much everything you could want from a debut rock record. It’s got chutzpah! It’s also got strong performances across the board, from that so-familiar mega-solo over the coda of “Alive” to the dynamic, free-for-all jam on “Porch.” And some really good songs, too: While some of the lyrics read like angst-by-numbers (though they sounded so deep at the time), there’s a reason tunes like “Jeremy” and “Black” are irreplaceable entries into the rock lexicon. This music helped define the 1990s in part because it was palatable to traditional rock audiences.

The Deluxe Legacy reissue of Ten pairs the original album (produced by Rick Parashar) with Ten Redux, which finds the 11-song tracklist remixed by longtime producer Brendan O’Brien, plus a half-dozen outtakes from the original sessions, and a DVD of the band’s now-classic appearance on MTV Unplugged. The bonus material is negligible: Much of it has circulated for years, or appeared in superior forms elsewhere. The remixes offer an interesting conundrum: While they’re technically, sonically very clean and clear, the reverb-laden original mixes still come out ahead. Because half the fun of listening to Ten as a teen in the pre- Internet age was trying to figure out what Eddie Vedder was talking about.

—John Brodeur

Black Moth Super Rainbow

Eating Us (Graveface)

In addition to making consistently enchanting music, Black Moth Super Rainbow make a music writer’s job easy. In naming their tracks things like “Bubblegum Animals” and “Gold Splatter,” and singing choruses like “Iron lemonade, eat my face away,” they save everyone the trouble of trying to devise complex images and metaphors that describe their lysergic soundscapes. Eating Us (due out May 26) is the next in a string of spacious psychedelic records the band have created, but this is by far their most sweeping and hi-fi. In maintaining the integrity of a rock band, the drumming is live and powerful, the bass is heavy, and sugary synthesizers keep everything glowing, even in the darker nooks of the fever dream. The band have long toured and been equated with the Flaming Lips, but the connection has never been more apt than now. (Especially considering longtime Lips producer Dave Fridmann is at the helm.) Every track is an electro-futuristic fairy tale that remains consonant, infectious and comforting until you wake up and consider with a sober mind the sick shit you were just dreaming. Opener “Born on a Day the Sun Didn’t Rise” seems lyrically portentous, but it moves—like the bulk of the album—in a sun-glazed, dissolving-in-the-back-seat-of-the car (with your hand out the window) way. As anyone who caught their show last year at RPI knows, the band are best when they have a full multimedia arsenal and a captive audience at their disposal, but even limited to a strictly sonic arena, Black Moth Super Rainbow are about as cinematic as they come.

—Josh Potter


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