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Denali
The Instinct (Jade Tree)

By all accounts, the songs on Denali’s self-titled debut were the first that Maura Davis had ever written—pretty impressive, even if the record wore out its welcome by the end of the second listen—so it was interesting to see where the Richmond, VA-based four-piece would go next. Apparently, two years of nonstop touring has sharpened the band’s edges, as the sounds, ideas and performances on The Instinct show a band really putting their heads together and striving toward something bigger and better. Their songwriting and presentation have improved by leaps and bounds in the last 18 months, shrugging off the faux-Portishead leanings and conventional song structures of Denali in favor of a more abstract, atmospheric sound, along the lines of late-period Radiohead. The rhythm section (also half of postpunkers Engine Down) pulsates and punctuates, especially on the insistent “Real Heat,” while guitarist Cam DiNunzio drapes icicles of sound across every chilly surface. Davis has really stepped up to bat vocally as well, at times emulating a stranger’s icy glare, at others a self-assured siren’s wail. The balance between entrancing and unsettling is best choreographed on The Instinct’s final stretch, where the band examine their darkened corners on “Nullaby,” blast full-throttle into “Normal Days,” then come back to earth for the heart-on-sleeve closer, “Welcome.”

—John Brodeur

Robert Wyatt
Cuckooland (Rykodisc)

Robert Wyatt is unmoved by pressures of the marketplace, creating music on his own terms and in his own time. He has been a gentle-yet-forceful presence ever since his band Soft Machine appeared with flourish and fanfare in the mid-’60s. His solo works, beginning with Rock Bottom in 1974, are some of the most singularly distinct sounds to have come out of the rock era.

Cuckooland is Wyatt’s first new album in six years. It’s full of the magic that’s been a hallmark of his writing and arranging sensibilities, combined with a voice that exudes a naturalism that makes each listener feel like they’re in his private company. As with his previous release, Shleep, this one was recorded at Phil Manzanera’s studio and calls upon some of his regular cohorts. Additionally, he plays three songs composed by Karen Mantler, who also appears, singing and playing harmonica. The album’s longest track, “Forest,” was written by Wyatt and his wife Alfreda Benge. It sounds too beautiful to have not been in existence for centuries. Embracing the poetics of human emotion, the song memorializes lost lives more effectively than any overt political song ever could.

—David Greenberger

Great Day For Up
godlovesasinner (Curve of the Earth)

How do you know a good band when you hear it? Why, when the four forces of nature—strong nuclear, weak nuclear, electromagnetic and gravitational—converge to form a singular, immeasurable force that gets right behind your eyes and casts weird invisible rays of foreign matter at people. They avoid you for days thereafter, which is great, but my point is that Albany-based Great Day For Up are well on their way to mastering this formula, which quantum theory suggests was responsible for the big bang.

Cosmology theorists and their astronomy colleagues have reconstructed the primordial chronology of that single, ineffable blossom of ferocity from which all life sprang, but apparently an even more daunting task these days is writing a simple song. But surprise! These guys can write ’em. Songs! Real, live songs for cryin’ out loud. From the stunning opener “goldenarms” to the decadent slow burn of “siempre,” this is just good stuff for the cosmos. Simple, powerful low-C riffs and deadly hooks. Tight as a tick on a smelly rat. Decent production. No need for Geezer Butler to pick up the white courtesy phone here.

The band have taken a markedly different approach from their last CD, which came off as a well-intentioned experiment with unintended results, sounding somewhat distracted and commingled with perhaps one too many influences. This stuff, however, is munificent, car-crushing and concentrated toward the task at hand, that task being conquering nations, salting their fields and hearing the lamentations of their weak. East Coast style. The only thing that annoys me a little is how they run all the words together in each song title. I’m dyslexic enough as it is.

—Bill Ketzer

The Byrds
Sweetheart of the Rodeo (Legacy Edition) (Columbia/Legacy)

Reissue powerhouse Columbia/ Legacy has given the Byrds’ brilliant foray into Nashville twang the once-over yet again. For diehard Byrdmaniax like me, this presumably final CD edition comes as a welcome end in a problematic, slightly incomplete reissue series on one of rock’s finest genre-bending albums.

Recorded in 1968 with an all-star cast of session musicians lettin’ loose in Nashville (including the dizzying slide of future-Byrd Clarence White), Sweetheart was a brilliant pioneering step toward rock’s country frontier. Going beyond their earlier folk-rock jangles and the outer limits of space-rock, a hard-pressed Roger McGuinn welcomed the surrealist country-rocker Gram Parsons aboard to spirit the newest phase in the ever-evolving Byrds canon. Parsons’ Byrds plucked ’60s rock back to a historical past, managing to showcase country’s overlaps in rock, R&B and folk, while still being cool.

Some of the bonus material available here has previously been released on a 1997 reissue, but this edition unearths a mass of studio outtakes, rehearsals and demos cut from the Sweetheart sessions. Nearly all of the 20-odd extras are alternate versions of album tracks sung by Parsons, a voice better suited to country’s warmness than the alternate McGuinn’s. All involved in Sweetheart have since renounced Parsons’ exclusion (due to contract obligations involving his other band, Int’l Submarine Band, given six bonus cuts here). Reissuers have well-compensated those regrets by including multiple takes of songs he was silenced on—a nice move, even with minute audible difference between takes. With remastering duties handled by Bob Irwin (of Sundazed fame), Sweetheart has never before sounded as clear or full, particularly in the ubiquitous swirls of pedal steel. Newcomers will likely opt for the less-pricey 1997 issue, but audiophiles, fans and rock geeks alike will find this a due encore in the life of this country-rock milestone.

—John Suvannavejh


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