Playlist

Tortoise and the Ex
In the Fishtank
(Konkurrent/Touch and Go)

The only commonality between Tortoise and the Ex, apart from the fact that both are remarkable ensembles in their own right, is that they thrive on unusual collaboration. The Chicago post-rock rhythmatists of Tortoise, for instance, backed Brazilian eccentric Tom Ze on a short U.S. tour earlier this year. And, in 1991, Amsterdam politico-punks the Ex paired off with the likes of free jazzer Han Bennink and Kurdish singer Brader Musiski for a series of singles.

Throughout much of this similarly adventurous cross-pollination, the fifth of the In the Fishtank EPs from Holland's Konkurrent label, the Ex's passionate pounding, clanging and shouting eclipse Tortoise's more subtle, ambient phrasing. "The Lawn of the Limp" and the short blast of "Central Heating" are prime examples that have a canorous Tortoise metaphorically fiddling, while a clamorous Ex burns Rome. But "Pleasure as Usual" is a calm, colorfully sketched interlude with a thick layer of Dutch-accented punk-speak. "Huge Hidden Spaces," a spare and low-frequency rumble, commingles the two groups' genres quite effectively. The symbiotic brilliance of this disc should be embraced by both camps as a most unexpected but beautiful un-pop-music train wreck.

--Thomas Peake

June of 44
Anahata
(Quarterstick)

While mainstream acts are buffeted by trends whether they like it or not, their underground cousins have the advantage of ignoring them--just as they always have. Hence Anahata, which pays not the slightest attention to the winds of pop-cultural change--or even, on occasion, its own history--and is all the better for it.

"Wear Two Eyes (Boom)," which opens the collection, is a harbinger of things to come, juxtaposing a Neanderthalic drum-and-bass pattern with, unexpectedly, Fred Erskine's mournful yet lyrical trumpet meanderings and words that mate poetry and creepiness ("Needle in an icebox/ Cold and sharp/Swimming in poison/ Diluting desire through a charcoal heart"). Equally unexpected are "Cardiac Atlas," a variation on the Fantastic Voyage theme that moves under the power of omni-directional keyboards, sloppy chanting and Julie Liu's serpentine viola, and "Southeast of Boston," in which Doug Scharin's percolating vibes chime in with the seductive vocal pairing of Jeff Mueller and guest Chiyoko Yoshida.

June of 44's rep isn't built on delicacy; it's prized most for its angst-ridden, Sabbathy guitar crushers. But while Anahata doesn't completely dispense with this approach ("Escape of the Levitational Trapeze Artist" thuds along satisfyingly in the old manner), the accent this time around is eclecticism: the dancing guitar and interlocking patterns of "Equators to Bi-Polar," the Bootsy Collins space-bass disconcertingly inserted into "Five Bucks in My Pocket," the jazzy coda to "Peel Away Velleity," and so on. The result may tick off those art martyrs who saw the band's music as the perfect excuse to gobble Quaaludes and feel crummy about themselves, but anyone still clinging to the belief that creative work can still be done under the indie-rock umbrella will likely be thrilled. These guys are following their own path, not one dictated by industry suits. And that's why they matter.

--Michael Roberts

Andre Williams and the Sadies
Red Dirt
(Bloodshot Records)

Goddamn, but if this isn't the best country-Western record of the year. For those who don't know, Andre "Mr. Rhythm" Williams is the eccentric, some might say offensive, R&B rumbler behind such pseudo-smashes as "Bacon Fat," "Jail Bait" and "Let Me Put It In," and the Sadies are a pack of Toronto-based alterna-twangers fronted by indie-rock poster child Dallas Good (Phonocomb, Jad Fair, etc.). Not exactly a country lover's dream team come true, but at the risk of repeating myself, goddamn, can these boys deliver. The whole thing kicks off with "Hey Truckers," a restless honky-tonk rattler straight from the George Jones playbook ("You got to bring home the cash/If you want some ass," testifies the ever-sensitive Williams, "Cause a trucker's wife/Don't want no diesel light"), then proceeds posthaste into a collection of greasy junkyard tales that would bring a smile to Johnny Cash's haggard kisser. Among the highlights are Williams originals "She's a Bag of Potato Chips" and "My Sister Stole My Woman" and a downright evil rendition of Johnny Paycheck's "Pardon Me (I've Got Someone to Kill Tonight)," but in all honesty, there's nary a clinker to be found here. In fact, all fourteen of these ditties should be required listening for clueless Nashville cronies and bumbling No Depression wannabes of the world--because this is C&W at its pistol-packin', cheatin'-hearted, dog-beatin' best.

--Brad Jones

Snakefarm
Songs From My Funeral
(RCA)

With production values slicker than a greased water moccasin come Snakefarm, the polished New York husband-wife team of ex-'80s femme-folk new-waver Anna Domino and Belgian multi-instrumentalist Michael Delory, whose dreamy reinterpretations of traditional ballads like "John Henry," "Rising Sun" and "Laredo" bypass gut-bucket treatments in favor of electro-rhythmic indulgency. Not that the grim and gothic tidings of the songs themselves get entirely lost, but it's hard to fathom their status as standards when the whole thing's infused with so much damn drum programming. Fans of Annie Lennox or This Mortal Coil should take a shine to these guys, while staunch traditionalists will long for Leadbelly and Odetta.

However ambitious and likable the project (or downright lazy not to use even one of their own compositions), the arrangements come off as fairly entrancing minimalist grooves, functional folk-funk and smooth acid blues. Walking bass lines accompany "St.James," a sixteenth-century British street ballad with enough overly produced cinematic flourish to almost blur what the infirmary dictates about the dues of hard living. Sea shanty accordion flavors enhance "Tom Dooley," an homage to a gallows thug; too bad the tolling of the synthesized bell ultimately rings so hollow for this well-hung man. "Train That I Ride" employs some fun Shaft-style guitars, but its techno-patter gets cloying in a big hurry. The duo's tribute to the 1917 chiller "Black Girl" scores, however, with banjos accompanying Domino's rich and beautifully disembodied voice, then building into a thick, swirling jam of ghostliness, intrigue and scroungy-sounding guitars before sidewinding its way back home.

Anna and Michael should hire a flesh-and-blood timekeeper--a good one--and toss those stupid programmed traps out the frickin' window. Keep the dobros, banjos, accordions--even some of the darker, chamber music bits. They should then leave hipster New York to set up shop in a backwoods barn and throw rattlers at each other under a full moon until the cemetery's empty. Stripped-down music almost always sounds better--there's something about the subtlety of an open casket.

--John La Briola

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