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He’s So High

Spiritualized
Amazing Grace (Sanctuary)

For nearly the last 20 years, J Spaceman (Jason Pierce) has been at the forefront of mind-bending, drugged-out rock, melding the shoegaze of bands like My Bloody Valentine and Jesus and Mary Chain with the traditions of ’60s underground rock. With his first band, Spacemen 3, Pierce and co-Spaceman Sonic Boom fed heavily off the vigor and pump of garage bands like the Stooges, as well as the exploratory nature of psych bands like 13th Floor Elevators. They also fed heavily off psychedelics themselves, and what resulted was a dangerously trance-inducing rock & roll sound, epitomized by their ethos that would also title their fifth LP, Taking Drugs to Make Music to Take Drugs To. When Spacemen 3 split up in 1991, Pierce took everything Spacemen 3 (sans Sonic Boom), i.e., the band, their drugs and circular reasoning, to form Spiritualized, which have since been the vehicle to perfect and indulge his sonic craft—with more instrumentation, more studio perfectionism, more drugs, more repent, and more longing for the psychedelic experience (all this was realized on 1997’s Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space).

Spiritualized’s latest and fifth LP, Amazing Grace, has been described by Pierce as a “back to basics” rock album. Inspired in part by the multiple-year project of scoring and recording 2001’s Let It Come Down with a full-piece 100-plus orchestra, a gospel choir and subsequent tour, Pierce’s desire for simplicity is certainly understandable. Pierce is perhaps the only rock musician who even unadorned requires sleigh bells, a dulcimer, and an 11-piece brass and string section. By comparison, Amazing Grace is a bit more economical, especially when you examine method rather than just form. Pierce reportedly gave his band a single day to learn and record each song, cutting off the chance for the more complex embellishments that characterize previous Spiritualized efforts. Rather than sounding rushed or amateurish, that decision yields an immediacy that hasn’t been heard or even suggested since Spacemen 3 days.

The sequencing of Amazing Grace follows what has become the perfected Spiritualized formula, common to all their albums and most of their songs: get high, hang out, and come down slowly. The two start-off cuts, “This Little Life of Mine” and “She Kissed Me (It Felt Like a Hit)”—the latter paying homage to the Crystals’ “He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss) in name only—rock the “Stooges for airports” tag as hard as Spiritualized ever have and likely ever will. After cruising through several blissed-out, midtempo rockers, a swelling free-jazz composition appears, “The Power and the Glory,” to start bringing us all back home. But before he lets it come down fully (which he does amazingly with the lullaby-on-ecstasy “Lay It Down”), Pierce treats us to the frolicking “Cheapster,” an adaptation of “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” updated with synths for the forthcoming “digital garage rock revival.”

This album comes comfortably close to typical Spiritualized fare; many songs sound like rewrites of older material or several older songs strung together, but in the best possible way. While some fans might await a return to the raw economy of Spacemen 3 days (nowadays a live show might have to do), Amazing Grace embraces a pure rock & roll aesthetic, something Spiritualized have never cared much for.

—John Suvannavejh

Joe Henry
Tiny Voices (Anti)

The ninth album from singer-songwriter Joe Henry finds him traveling farther down the path set forth on his 1996 album, Trampoline. He started out nearly 20 years ago performing narrative-driven Americana, or “alt-country” as it came to be known several years later. These days, he’s creating a different type of Americana; one that incorporates jazz, soul, folk, rock and just a little bit of sonic chaos. Tiny Voices is his first record for the talent-heavy Anti imprint, and finds him following a skewed parallel to new labelmate Tom Waits. However, while Waits is all boozed up and pointing at shadows on the wall, Henry is more like a red-wine-sipping Willy Wonka, taking you on the journey of a lifetime in just over 60 minutes.

A master narrator and character actor whose lyrics often play out like novelettes, Henry explores themes of love, loyalty and mortality with a wit and vocabulary rarely found in today’s rather shallow talent pool. As with several of his previous efforts, he opted to record this album almost entirely live, which requires an expert cast of musicians. In the past, he’s enlisted such top players as Don Cherry, Ornette Coleman, Brad Mehldau, Chris Whitley and the Jayhawks. This time out, his peer group includes keyboardists Patrick Warren and Dave Palmer and drummer Jay Bellerose. Henry’s production treatments make these 12 songs sound as if they could have been recorded at any time in the last 60 years, rendering Tiny Voices an equally edgy and inviting collection that will likely sound just as fresh 60 years on.

—John Brodeur

Allen Toussaint
The Complete Warner Recordings (Rhino Handmade)

From 1972 to 1978, Allen Tous- saint recorded three albums for Warner Bros. Already a well-established New Orleans-based songwriter (including “Holy Cow,” “Working in a Coal Mine,” “Fortune Teller” and “Brickyard Blues”), he came to the label that was then among the most supportive of a wide variety of singer- songwriters such as Randy Newman, James Taylor and Van Dyke Parks. However, Toussaint failed to make any commercial inroads. Which is not to say he didn’t find financial satisfaction: Herb Albert’s recording of Toussaint’s “Whipped Cream” was used as the theme song for The Dating Game, netting him extremely comfortable returns during its run on television.

The 43 songs collected in this beautifully designed hardbound set include the aforementioned three albums as well a single and a bevy of previously unissued live tracks. Coupling his scant touring with an absence of airplay, the albums found favor only in his hometown and with other fans of the Crescent City’s vibrant music. For the most part, these offerings are free from the production excesses of the era and sound fresh today. Toussaint’s own version of “On Your Way Down” (also recorded by Little Feat) makes it clear why Lowell George, the Band, Bonnie Raitt and others sought Toussaint’s talent as a writer and arranger. Rooted in tradition, he fearlessly soaked in the contemporary world around him. Surprises abound, whether in the combining of instruments, the overlay of rhythmic push and pull or vocal arrangements. Listen to “Electricity” and hear a restless explorer; on “Last Train,” a funky and dramatic ringleader; on “Southern Nights,” a poetic heart unafraid to filter his vision through the possibilities found in a recording studio.

—David Greenberger

Quasi
Hot Shit (Touch and Go)

With all apologies to the white Stripes, Sam Coomes and Janet Weiss—collectively known as Quasi—have been doing the divorced-couple-as-art-damaged-indie-rock-duo thing a lot longer, and with more gusto. Their sixth album, Hot Shit, finds them moving a few more footsteps away from the fatalistic tone of previous releases toward a fitter, happier, more productive sound. Heck, this time around, they’re celebrating “Good Times” and “Sunshine Sounds,” a far cry from earlier tracks like “It’s Raining” and “I Never Want to See You Again.” Don’t be fooled, though; the dichotomy of dour lyrics vs. shiny happy melodies still reigns, but the topics here are less personal, leaning more toward social commentary and third-person narrative. The shadow of the Bush administration looms large in “Seven Years Gone” and “White Devil’s Dream” (“Bombs fall across the sea and every day we get less free”), and one would assume that Coomes is placing his close friend and frequent collaborator, the late Elliott Smith, under the microscope for another round of examination on “Drunken Tears.” While not as eerily prescient as 1998’s “Poisoned Well” (“You won’t live long, but you may write the perfect song”), “Tears”—written well before Smith’s suicide in October—is still touching in its unfailing empathy toward a friend who was clearly headed down the wrong path. “Tears” also acts as something of a centerpiece for the album. This is where the pop and art rock visibly collide, its groovy, George Harrison-esque choruses interspersed with blasts of sheer cacophony. You bet it’s Hot Shit.

—John Brodeur


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