May 9, 2013

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Beach Fossils

Clash the Truth

(Captured Tracks)

The consistently great Messthetics series, documenting forgotten or never-known-in-the-first-place recordings from the D.I.Y./post-punk era of the late ’70s/early ’80s, demonstrates that that period of time yielded a treasure trove of unheralded material, and it causes this writer to question the need for revivalists to blatantly borrow certain elements as an aesthetic choice, although it’s a shortcut that frequently works on suckers—this writer included. The new album Clash the Truth from Beach Fossils, the project of Dustin Payseur, goes beyond mere hints regarding its influences, evoking recordings on the British label Factory Records circa 1980, instead of previously bringing to mind the pop-oriented Sarah Records on its 2011 mini-album What a Pleasure.

The group benefits from the use of a real drummer, Tommy Gardner, instead of a drum machine as on preceding releases, who pushes the band forward and provides subtle, yet interesting pattern variations. As before, the sound and execution is clean and purposeful, but it’s less dreamy and more kinetic; actually, interest and attention starts slipping when the band strays away from the upbeat approach. For the most part, each track gets to the point and then gets out of the way; the opening title track being Exhibit A, with a gripping attack, peaking with spoken bursts until its conclusion. “Generational Synthetic” allows the listener to ride its momentum with galloping drums, and “Shallow,” one of the album’s highlights, keeps up the rhythmic urgency alongside its chiming guitars. “Careless” is marked with a specific electric guitar timbre and small, taut melodies, and again, the unrelenting drumming with furious cymbal hits provides a great boost.

While the recording is controlled and precise, it approaches the group’s live execution more than any previous release without quite reaching the band’s breathtaking live spontaneity, which can erupt out of the pop structures. It’s an album of balanced stylistic appropriations, conveying energy with a straight face that hides the smile it wants to show.

Dawn McCarthy & Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy

What the Brothers Sang

(Drag City)

Forgive this writer, who can’t help but think of the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups commercials where two people bump into each other, mixing their chocolate and peanut butter, being “two great tastes that taste great together.” Conway and Loretta had it, and it worked for Robert Plant and Allison Krause on Raising Sand. These are duo-vocal blends that are more than the sum of their parts, and the new album What the Brothers Sang from Dawn McCarthy and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy spotlights another striking combination.

While Raising Sand featured the lesser-known Everly Brothers tune “Gone Gone Gone (Done Moved On),” What the Brothers Sang entirely consists of songs recorded by the Everly Brothers and features none of their biggest hits except for the b-side “Devoted to You” which cracked the American Top 10 pop chart. Dawn McCarthy is the haunting singer and songwriter behind the theatrical, compelling duo Faun Fables, and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy—a.k.a. Will Oldham, the fellow behind Palace in the ’90s—has never sounded better or more conventional, shedding some idiosyncratic vocal tics of his past while not sounding entirely refined and spotless.

The album takes little time to dig its hooks in; the opener “Breakdown” delivering a glorious song swell within its first minute, with McCarthy channeling a little Sandy Denny in her simultaneously hearty and tender vocals. The often-understated arrangements serve the songs well, from the finger-picked guitar and mandolin lines on “Empty Boxes” to the pedal steel and string wisps on “It’s All Over.” A perfect balance and tone is reached on “Poems, Prayers and Promises,” while the full-band number with drum backing, “Just What I Was Looking For,” ambles along like an evening promenade. It’s a beautifully recorded album, bereft of irony; both artists have had more challenging releases, but sometimes a simple pleasure like What the Brothers Sang just hits the spot.


May 9, 2013

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