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LIGHTNING STRIKES – Quick but essential reviews for the discerning listener

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Month two means issue two of our occasional series Lightning Strikes, giving us once again ample opportunity to give some well-deserved attention to some early-2016 releases that deserve however much boost we can give them. We’re always up for that around here because our experience has taught us that the torrent of gems that goes otherwise under-reported is worth our continued, constant attention since it’s so often awash in a level of quality that often – and easily – exceeds that which is most commonly being foisted on us by the so-called ‘majors.’ With that in mind, we once again offer three albums off most beaten tracks that will have you A) scratching your head as to why such records could be relegated to some sort of obscurantist status, and B) scurrying feverishly across the internet seeking out the very titles you’ve just read about. All we ask, as always, is ‘trust us.’ You won’t be disappointed. [feature photo: Trish Tritz]


Sultans of String w/Anwar Khurshid – “Subcontinental Drift” (Sony/RED)

Having picked up sitar star Anwar Khurshid for their fifth album Subcontinental Drift, the Canadian world/folk collective Sultans of String, considering the quality already long in place, might be a bit guilty of gilding the lily but the results make it rather certain no one’s going to mind.


Fusing together a vast array of palettes – or, this involving such a variety of musical tastes, palates – the Sultans, banking on the boundless writing team abilities of co-founders Chris McKool (violin, viola, et al) and guitarist Kevin Laliberté, produce here their fullest sound yet. Drawing on an insanely deep pool of in-house talent, the band wander across the atlas with a deft aplomb. From the lightly-skipping, reel-inflected “Enter the Gate” (an appropriate album opener) to “Snake Charmer”‘s nimble hypnotics (built upon an opening cello foundation that’s so close to the aboriginal moan of a didgeridoo it had me checking the credits) to the delicate and flat-out lovely drift and drive of the title track, the album, traipsing freely over the borders that separate Celtic from flamenco from the flaring territories of Mideastern jazz, lures one inexorably towards the sublime with what is in essence a spiritual music that carries a great grace of movement in its heart. Any album that can rescue “Blowin’ In The Wind” – a classic that, surely, no one really needs to hear again – by first undergirding it with layers of tabla-rich percussion and a swinging update of Indian string flourishes before ceding vocals to Khurshid singing in his native Hindi, deserves every superlative that comes its way. And in fact, with Subcontinental Drift, the Sultans as a whole should expect a surge of superlatives once this album hits the street, coming in from, yes, every corner of the globe. (√√√¼)

[Subcontinental Drift is available for order here]


BILL PRITCHARD – “Mother Town Hall” (Tapete Records)

A songwriter/musician who had little idea how missed he was until releasing sophomore album A Trip To The Coast in 2014, a several-pop-lifetimes eight years since its predecessor (By Paris, By Taxi, By Accident), Bill Pritchard, on the forthcoming Mother Town Hall, rather makes as if it never happened, or if it did it doesn’t matter. It’s a wise course.

The response to Coast from Q to Rolling Stone to rock cognescenti everywhere, was swift and fulsome, a ticker-tape parade of critical glee, the type reaction many others of his ilk would sell their mother for (and may have but let’s talk about that some other time). Not bad for what was in fact a fluke of circumstance, one wherein matey musician Tim Bradshaw just happened to move within spitting distance and the two decided ‘What the hell, this could be fun.’ So, thanking providence for her good taste and her way with the “A-Z,” we move to Mother Town Hall (available Feb.26th on Tapete Records), twelve tracks that speak in frothy dalliance with all manner of chancy, fanciful characters, all of it buoyed by some of the most rock solid songwriting this side of the Canterbury/Greenwich Village divide. Pritchard’s world is a curiously idiosyncratic one, a place where dark whimsy swirls in the shadows, something like, say, Beasley Street winding through a map of Kevin Ayers’ psyche. Hence the near-vaudevillian popsike nugget “Vampire From New York,” banjo and plonky piano jouncing about with some vamping horn splashes like it’s all a romp in the park, the suave slinky spy chase pop of “Saturn and Co.,” the soft burbling effervescence of “My First Friendship,” as sweet a paean to a hunk of bakelite with dials as you’ll ever hear. Pick of the bunch, though, is “15A Holy Street,” a disquietingly pretty lament of an impressionistic cinematic short story that shimmers dolorously in the very same rain its lyric evokes.


Graced with a supple voice that straddles the border between tenor and baritone and thus seems consigned no matter what it sings to be aglow with a warm nostalgic cast, Pritchard ends up also straddling to some extent a midway line between the welcoming cynicism of Matthew Edwards and the open-hearted wit of Peter Blegvad, and there are many many worse place to find oneself. √√√½


emotional ahh the names cover

EMOTIONAL – “Ahh…The Name is Emotional, Baby” (Burger Records; Empty Cellar Records)

Back in 2010, Minneapolis/St Paul collective Gayngs (basically a collective of two, Justin Vernon and Ryan Olson) put out their only ever record, Relayted. A sly, crafty record whose knowing white soul winks and deep soulful smarts, combined with pure indie instincts as bred by the pairs’ years of experience, resulted in an album that nabbed best album honors in my year-end top 10. Ahh…The Name is Emotional, Baby, while perhaps not destined for such personally designated heights – though one never knows – reminds me of that record and is causing commensurate ripples of joy to rise up from down under as I sit here softly dancing in my chair with an idiot’s happy grin paralyzing my face.

Plucking similar nostalgic groove strings, Emotional, in the person, primarily, of Brian Wakefield, a long-time habitué of the San Francisco Bay Area’s wildly fervent underground music scene, has created a rich textural document that’s just as capable of casually referencing fellow modern-day traveler Kurt Vile (the easy-loping yearn and chinme of “Could I Be the Last One”) as it is at mining the heart-riven channels of Elliott Smith’s poppier instincts (“Don’t Call Me [Your Baby, Baby],” which also taps momentarily into Alex Chilton’s teenage fantasies) while skimming with equal facility through slow-as-a-ballad reverbed urban blues a la John Dwyer (“Lies”), gently carbonated SF garage pop (“Isabel”), or the chiming 3-minute summer pop song (“She Dropped Outta College”) that sounds something close to what one imagines AM rock would sound like if we all still had transistor radios glued to our ears in 2016.


A sneaker wave of an album aimed perhaps at the tight in-crowd of the SF-based music community, Ahh…The Name is Emotional, Baby, with its frisky Bootsy allusion and consummate left-field pop nous might just surprise all concerned and escape into the wide, wild world, spreading like gospel its innate take on the rock’n’roll lineage it’s drawn from. Here’s hoping, because thus far it’s the unearthed underground gem of the year. Take it easy, Emotional (I know you will) and maybe see you down the back end of 2016, popping up on best-of lists left and right. (√√√½)

[Ahh…The Name is Emotional, Baby, released Feb. 19th, is available for pre-order here]