A Year in the Wilderness
At 53, L.A. punk veteran John Doe remains a ruggedly handsome devil. Sensitive, too, judging from the candor of his lyrics—he can admit when he's wrong. But love never seems to work out: Out of 12 selections on his seventh solo album, 10 deal with romance gone awry. (Of the remaining two, one is the 20 seconds of piano and organ that open the disc, while the murderous antihero of "The Meanest Man in the World" simply has no heart at all.)
Yet Doe works his subject matter with the precision and power of an Olympic athlete. On "Lean Out Yr Window" and "A Little More Time," he drives home his heartache by vividly depicting happier times. "Big Moon" finds him postponing the inevitable comedown, wooing his intended with drinks, hand holding, stargazing on a rooftop. He plays the angles sonically, too. Much the way savvy classic country musicians made the most of juxtaposing fast and slow tempos within album sides, Doe divvies the program between soft, introspective numbers ("The Bridge") and incendiary rockers ("Hotel Ghost").
Lovelorn or not, Doe is in fine company. Listeners conditioned by years of hearing his vocal harmonies with X and the Knitters will delight in "The Golden State," one of three numbers on which rootsy Canadian singer Kathleen Edwards proves an ideal foil, complementing his mix of rock swagger and country sincerity. Aimee Mann and Jill Sobule also share the microphone on one number apiece, and the top-notch band includes guitar hero Dave Alvin, with special kudos going to the versatile keyboard work of Jamie Muhoberac. Perhaps the lone wolf is just another role for the part-time actor to adopt, but on Wilderness, he plays it with consummate conviction. KURT B. REIGHLEY
John Doe plays the Tractor Tavern on Sat June 16, 9:30 pm, $15 adv/$18 DOS.
SKY CRIES MARY
After reuniting four years ago, Sky Cries Mary—the band once almost as well-known for their theatrical, costumed live shows as their uniquely psychedelic, tribal-gothic sound—have returned with a new album that might convert former detractors. On Small Town, bombast has given way to a sleeker, softer, and more organic feel, and although the band are now scattered across the country, this is their most cohesive album since 1993's This Timeless Turning.
From the opening moments of the title track, it's apparent that things have changed. Roderick Romero's singing has never sounded gentler or better, creating new dimensions in the band's presentation. His and wife/covocalist Anisa Romero's voices work together to gorgeous effect on more acoustic numbers like "Hovering," "Travel Light," and the sparse and haunting "Missing." "You Are" is the band's most overtly poppy offering to date. "I'm Always Home" finds the band successfully dabbling with trip-hop.
Fans of the band's past work won't be shocked or disappointed. Gliding rockers "Rainfall" and "Five Train" and the beautiful "Find a Way" return to territory more reminiscent of earlier work—"Land of All" actually manages to feel like a hybrid between old favorites "Elephant Song" and "Don't Forget the Sky," with Roderick's Burroughs-esque narrative complemented by Anisa's soaring choruses. Beautifully different from former work without being a radical departure, Small Town is an exciting new chapter in a band that have once again found joy in making music together. BARBARA MITCHELL
Sky Cries Mary play Neumo's on Fri June 15, 8 pm, $12 adv, 21+.
It's a Bit Complicated
"I'm ignoring my grown-up problems/As I've got no idea how to solve them," rhapsodizes Eddie Argos on "I Will Survive." And, indeed, Art Brut's sophomore album is resonant rawk for the shiftless postadolescent in his early 20s. It's pithy hooks and waggishly insecure spiels, though some things don't need to be solved for the south London quintet. This album—especially highlights such as rave-up "Direct Hit" and ranting "Nag Nag Nag Nag"—replicates the immediacy and endearing awkwardness of the band's bratty, celebratory 2005 debut, Bang Bang Rock & Roll.
In Art Brut songs, the narrator is a scraggy fellow lusting for more vice in his life. To use a pubescent pursuit as analogy, you could say he's leaped from the Saturday-morning capers of Batman to the stark noir of The Dark Knight Returns. He needs grit, base thrills, but he prefers them in a comforting format. So forming a forthright garage band is like donning his rumpled, cigarette-smoke-permeated cape. It's reality and escapism, defiant and anxious.
But the life of Art Brut's narrator is a bit more complicated now. He's had some women, even if he's unsure how to fulfill them (as confessed on "People in Love," "Jealous Guy"). He works through being crushed out, and then spit out, with cheeky cadences and spiny guitar riffs, spouting 11 antsy tracks that are pouty like Elastica and winsomely stunted like Jonathan Richman, wry like the Fall while charmingly sloppy like the Hold Steady. It's like your favorite mix tape and a comic book full of suggestively ripped spandex and ass kicking. And maybe a pint or three. TONY WARE
A vivid allusion to Jack the Ripper, mocking tributes to evil seductresses, and inspired Misfits knockoffs populate the Horrors' debut, Strange House. Like so many overhyped UK buzz bastards (see Klaxons, Fujiya & Miyagi, et al.), the album's not as bad as you want it to be, and not as good as it should be. Nevertheless, the bad-trippy antics, emphasized by a gory Chris Cunningham video clip for lead single "Sheena Is a Parasite" (starring Samantha Morton!), make for an amusing journey into dark, stylized theatrics worthy of the Kills and Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
As an artistic form, horror plays on our imaginations, generating a mixture of nervous (and sometimes unabashed) laughter and genuine fear. Admirably, the Horrors tap into those sensations with ease, even if their songwriting abilities add up to something less than a masterpiece. It's not hard to poke fun at lead singer Faris Rotter's yelps, but his voice fits against a vicious psychobilly attack. Screeching guitar lines and dark, stomping bass make for an unstable and pungent atmosphere.
Still, precious few tracks stand out on Strange House. "Sheena Is a Parasite" is covered with drum fills that burst out like blisters. On a cover of Screaming Lord Sutch's "Jack the Ripper," Rotter starts with a ragged crawl and then revs up into a flurry of vocal punches that hit like an amphetamine jolt: "I see him in my dreams, oh no/Jack the Ripper!" Scary stuff. Really. MOSI REEVES
The Horrors play the Crocodile on Wed June 20, 8 pm, $10 adv/$12 DOS.
Skipping Towards Gomorrah