Three recent CDs share somewhat tangled imbrications. Tris McCall has a new CD called I’m Assuming You’re All in Bands, recorded live in the studio with his band The New Jack Trippers. Whereas previous McCall joints have explored his native New Jersey, here he’s casting some cynical glances across the river at the trendoid scenesters of Brooklyn. The back cover of the CD is a Tintin-style drawing of Tris looking at the Brooklyn Bridge, and at first glance it looks like he’s flashing his goods at the natives (it’s the long trenchcoat he’s wearing). Fortunately, the artist has thoughtfully provided trouser cuffs, socks, and practical footwear for our Tris-surrogate, so that unsavory impression can be disregarded. Well, except that the CD kind of is a big ol’ fuck you: McCall has stated that “this album is a repository for ugliness that I hope I’ve now gotten out of my system,” so maybe the illustrator was just catching that aspect of the CD. “Colonial Williamsburg” might be a good example – and its conflation of the Brooklyn neighborhood with the Virginia historical tourist-trap village is a brilliant, cutting conceit. Elsewhere McCall’s a bit more ruminative: “The Hymn Against the Whiskey” at first seems like another airing of the occasional puritan strain in McCall’s thinking, but ultimately feels more like pain at watching a close friend (fail to) deal with a drinking problem. The semi-unlisted final track (which may or may not be called “Lucky 13” – even though it’s the 14th indexed track on the CD) ends the CD by returning Tris to his beloved Hudson County. Oh – and if you happen to be a Brooklyn scenester, the wonderfully bitchy liner notes (heavily redacted: McCall calls them “an evil parlor game”) will be a treat: can you spot yourself and all your cool friends?
McCall’s 1999 CD If One of These Bottles Should Happen to Fall was produced by Scott Miller of the Loud Family – and as most readers of this page probably know, there’s actually a new Loud Family CD, called What If It Works?. Miller was coaxed out of retirement by musical cohort Anton Barbeau (whom Miller apparently wanted to work with as far back as the latter days of Game Theory, according to a recent interview) and into using the Loud Family name by the ruthless corporate honchos of 125 Records. While the piecemeal and collaborative nature of this CD makes it less conceptually coherent than any other of Miller’s recordings (although the songs are arranged in a bit of a narrative arc, roughly from cynicism to hope), three of Miller’s new tracks are as good as nearly anything he’s done: “Song About ‘Rocks Off’ – which is; “Mavis of Maybelline Towers” – which I glabbered about a couple months back; and “Don’t Bother Me While I’m Living Forever” – and three of Barbeau’s songs are among his best (“Pop Song 99,” “Flow Thee Water,” and “What If It Works?”). “Don’t Bother Me…” might be the most psychedelic-friendly track Miller’s ever recorded (Barbeau outdoes it, though, on his new psych CD Village of the Apple Sun – to be featured here shortly). The guitars swirl, the synths swoop, and Barbeau’s backing vocals drift off into a haze. I think the two musicians work well together, despite a sometimes radical disjunction in lyrical approach (Miller’s allusive and cerebral but always on point; Barbeau’s loose and – as Miller aptly describes him in the interview linked above – rather In His Own Write-era Lennonesque in his loopy free associations); Barbeau’s willingness to throw whatever at the wall to see what sticks loosens up Miller’s sometimes overly calibrated musical approach, while that focus and concentration reins in some of Barbeau’s more prolix tendencies. Their voices mesh beautifully as well, with the slight raspiness in Barbeau’s voice adding a bit of grit to Miller’s sometimes too-weightless tenor. Incidentally, while their previous recordings might lead you to expect Miller to take the high parts and Barbeau the lower ones, often that’s not the case: Barbeau frequently makes use of falsetto, while Miller explores his lower register far more here than he has (notably on their cover of Cat Stevens’ “I Think I See the Light”).
Up through The Tape of Only Linda, nearly all of Miller’s recordings with both Game Theory and the Loud Family were produced by Mitch Easter – who, of course, co-produced R.E.M.’s Murmur with Don Dixon. Dixon too had all but retired – when late in 2004 a couple of demos surfaced, one of which (“Roommate” – available here) is one of those songs that elderly folks like me persist in imagining would be a huge hit single, if radio acted like it did in our childhoods and actually played songs like that. Once more, the heavies at 125 Records leaned on one of their favorite musicians…and in due course, a CD came forth. Intriguingly titled The Entire Combustible World in One Small Room, the CD is another of Dixon’s psychological concept albums. His last CD of new material, 2000’s The Invisible Man, presented its songs as each being from the viewpoint of a different character – each song helpfully presenting the age of its narrator, concerning whom, Dixon explains in the notes, “I am all of them and none of them.” This time around, each track on the CD is set in a different type of room (a hotel suite, a kitchen, an ICU, a dorm, etc.) – but at least one of these “rooms” is described as “your head”…which might give a clue as to which room the title refers to. The album closes with a spooky cover of Let’s Active’s “Room with a View” (reprised from a Mitch Easter tribute CD a couple years back, and featuring vocals from Dixon’s wife Marti Jones, a recording artist in her own right): “you see everything for what it is.” It opens, conversely, with the amblingly structured “In Darkness Found” (set, Dixon’s notes inform us, in a church). It’s a shame Dixon hasn’t recorded more: not only is he an unusual writer and meticulous producer, he’s a fabulous singer, his gritty voice adding a soulfulness to his pop numbers that the genre too often avoids in favor of a trebly, adolescent callowness. His songs here prove intriguing and diverse, the insanely catchy (the aforementioned “Roommate”) set alongside the melancholy, odd, or energetic. Dixon’s lyrics are generally introspective and character-based, with the “room” concept proving a fine vehicle by which Dixon rhymes the situation with the psyche.