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Just Keeps Gettin’ Better

M. Ward
Transfiguration of Vincent (Merge)

M. Ward is as subtly idio-syncratic as his decision to forego a complete first name in favor of an initial. Tin-pan alley songcraft and friendliness run through Transfiguration of Vincent, the third release by this Portland, Ore.-based musician, though in guises alternating from front-porch casual to ice-cream-social festive. Reference points would be Closing Time-era Tom Waits or many of the free-ranging excursions of Giant Sand frontman Howe Gelb (who contributed a song to this set, and who also released Ward’s debut on his own Ow Om label), though Ward’s lyrical sensibilities favor a different sort of poetic metaphor.

The songs are primarily built around an acoustic guitar, yet they are as removed from folk music (and its implications of belonging to a certain tradition, carried forward by, well, folks) as was Skip Spence’s Oar. However, where Spence’s personally fragmented songs tended to the oblique, Ward’s are downright catchy. Harmonica, scattered percussives and occasional piano all are tossed into the mix with surefooted believability—every bit of musical filigree comes off as wholly essential to the final character of the song. A cover of David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” is reworked with a slowly swirling rhythm, the song’s romantic overture redirected into a quiet invitation. The album then closes with a brief and haunting piano instrumental. With each new playing, this album has continued to yield new pleasures.

—David Greenberger

Alien Death Taxi (Permanent Records)

This 2002 release is getting close to being too long in the tooth to be reviewed in these timely, topical pages—but it’s too good of a record to let it be the one that got away from us. It also helps that EDO have deep roots in the Capital Region: Vocalist Eliot Duhan is a Chatham native, and primordial versions of EDO did their thing with verve, vigor and frightening regularity at the Palais Royale in Albany (among other local venues) back in the early ’90s.

These days, EDO are a Philadelphia-based live monster who mine a musical vein somewhere between the Captain Beefheart and Roky Erickson lodes, scary-funny-cerebral lyrics bouncing off of mutant blooze, creating sparks and smoke and screaming in the process. Duhan is a classic over-the-top shouter who mixes things up on this, the group’s second full-length CD, with cool spoken-word rants about all sorts of exciting topics: corneal grafts, ice ages, pedophile priests, herb jones(ing), pets on drugs, scary suburbs and the titular alien death taxi.

Duhan has his own Zoot Horn Rollo/Rockette Morton string-bending axis, too, with Pete “the Fishman” Wilder (guitar) and John Thomas (bass) making some exceptional jazz-rock-blues based noises; Andy “Screech” McConnell rounds out the record with punchy drums and the occasional foray into guitar and keyboard world. Their instrumental prowess is a key part of what makes this record so successful: Duhan’s diatribes would sound good on top of most anything, but they come off phenomenally well when chained to such a muscular musical beast as the one created by his bandmates.

All told, a great record to get mugged by in a dark alley behind Frank Zappa’s house, while Ween snort glue, giggle and point.

—J. Eric Smith

The Rock Album (Kranepool)

Crawdad’s The Rock Album deserves to be played ridiculously loud. A truly American guitar-fueled study, it just makes a guy simply want to get tattoos and drive inappropriate distances into the wilderness, maybe even make a fruit drink with grain alcohol. Yet, there’s nothing pawn-shop about it, and man, is it ever a gentleman steam-rock giant: precise, deliberate and full on open-ended immaculate reception, almost to the threshold but sidetracked by a cool stream and nicotine addiction. I’m pretty sure the axes were recorded at serious volumes, because they have that bold-but-vulnerable feel, a hot thrum of feedback waiting when hands come off the neck. There’s nothing better. Not all-day crock-pot chicken, not unprotected sex, nothing, I tell you.

If Malcolm Young joined Wilco and stole the Beatles 1969 sensibilities back from that freak Michael Jackson, that’s Crawdad. Indeed, the boys from ’cross the river pluck a feather from the caps of many a classic and latter-day rump-shaker (the Stones, Guided by Voices and the Replacements also come to mind), but such pedagogical deities are not starkly obvious in the actual Crawdad sound—instead, they inevitably arise in the ethic, the hops, the actual attention to structure upon which their working-man anthems are built. It’s all pretty much no-filler, but make special note of “The Glorious Game” and the promiscuous “Combination,” both of which give you overwhelming bass, Joe Crawley’s snare-flam thunderclaps and, of course, the guitars, which make the fear of God seem only like so much inclement weather.

—Bill Ketzer


Abdullah Ibrahim
African Magic (Enja/Justin Time)

Recording for more than 40 years, South African-born pianist and composer Abdullah Ibrahim has been creating a vast catalog of staggering beauty. African Magic, a live trio set recorded in Germany two years ago, celebrates his primary interests, mixing impressionistic interpretations of his homeland traditions with modern European classicism and American jazz.

Then named Dollar Brand, Ibrahim left South Africa in 1962 for Switzerland, coming to the attention of Duke Ellington, who presented him on record and utilized him occasionally in his own orchestra. Ellington’s music was an important early influence, and Ibrahim has explored his writing regularly over the decades, with this set including two pieces. However, the defining character of this 24-song album is Ibrahim’s own writing. “Blue Bolero,” which appears as four separate fragments over the course of the performance, is at once cinematic, folklike, spiritually resonant and liltingly relentless.

Since the beginning of the ’90s, Abdullah Ibrahim has returned to his birthplace (dividing his time between there and New York City), though it’s never been very far away from his art, informing his music with a potent sense of place. African Magic is a perfect entry point for the unfamiliar, and a stirring new work for the already familiar.


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