Last November, in
a theater in North
Carolina, some of
the greatest jazz/rock
musicians alive came
together for the inau-
gural New Universe
Music Festival. These players all happen to be
signed to the Abstract Logix label, but this fes-
tival wasn’t merely a showcase for their spon-
sor—it’s more like a look at the history of this
genre and where it’s headed. The album opens
up with one of the young lions on the bill,
Alex Machacek— whose trio includes Neal
Fountain on bass and Jeff “Apt. Q258” Sipe
on drums—combining his angular, jarring
melodies with dissonant chords on “Strafe.”
Closing out the first disc is Widespread
Panic’s lead axe-slinger Jimmy Herring.
“Rainbow” kicks off Herring’s set with
keyboardist Matt Slocum playing a pensive
piano intro before jumping into an odd-
time riff that sets up Herring’s absolutely
burning solo. Here, Herring mixes the
whammy-bar tricks of Jeff Beck with the
harmonic vocabulary of Coltrane. On the
second disc, Wayne Krantz appears with his
trio—bassist Anthony Jackson and drum-
mer Cliff Almond—and blurs the line
between composition and improvisation
with “Why,” a frenetic tune that combines
chord stabs with Krantz’s signature interval-
lic soloing. Herring later returns as part
of Lenny White’s group to tear through
the odd-time madness of Joe Henderson’s
“Gazelle” with guitarist Tom Guarna, and
the two guitarists come off like a futuristic-
sounding Allman Brothers.
The final guitarist on the album is the
Mahavishnu himself, John McLaughlin. His
band, the Fourth Dimension, is a tight and
nimble unit that can change directions at
will as if all the members are a single organism. McLaughlin’s amp-less tone sings its
way through the opener, “Recovery,” and
bassist Etienne Mbappé shows no shortage of chops on his turn in the spotlight.
Joining the group for some extra rhythmic
propulsion is tabla master Zakir Hussain.
On the album closer, “Mother Tongues,”
Hussain and McLaughlin bring back some
of that Shakti mojo with a 21-minute firestorm that lets everyone in the band stretch
out. It will take most listeners some time
to work through both discs, but the chance
to hear the evolution of jazz/rock guitar in
a live setting is well worth the investment.
If you ever see Austin’s White Denim live,
there’s a fair chance that at some point in the
evening you’ll witness the most rippin’ band
on the planet. Still, the real shape-shifting
beauty of White Denim has always been the
range of contexts to which they apply their
chops. They may do their share of free jam-min’, but they are a song-first band. That collision of aesthetics defines their fourth release
D, as well. These may be White Denim’s
strongest songs yet, and the playful and
inspired sense of
texture that the
band applies in
the studio simultaneously lends
ballast and make
these tunes soar.
The territory covered on D borders on
mind-blowing at times. Lead guitarist James
Petralli’s deft and funkily nimble-fingered
fret work is built on a super-clean tone that
evokes Groundhog Tony “TS” McPhee’s
darting Stratocaster work on Who Will Save
the World, some of Jimmy Page’s Presence
and In Through the Out Door sounds, and
Ollie Halsall’s work with Patto (he even
nicks the guitar hook from Patto’s “Hold
Me Back” on “It’s Him”).
The rest of the band—Joshua Block
on drums, Steve Terebecki on bass, and
newcomer Austin Jenkins on second
guitar—are a fantastically cohesive and
telepathic bunch. And the spacious production—which often has the clarity and atmosphere of the Flaming Lips’ grandiose later
work—gives the band room to exhibit their
teamwork and tasteful virtuosity.
In the hands of a less skilled and inspired
bunch, D could have been a style-leaping
train wreck. Instead, the band and the
record leapfrog from hyperactive Skynyrd-as-prog breakdowns and melancholy Moody
Blues-y balladry to passages reminiscent
of the Grateful Dead’s most fiery and illuminated moments with an ease and joyful
sincerity that make this one of the most
exciting and beguiling releases of 2011.
Fountains of Wayne
Sky Full of Holes
Yep Roc Records
With their first new
release since 2007’s
Traffic and Weather,
Fountains of Wayne
carries on its critically acclaimed brand
of shimmery pop.
Formed in New York in 1996 and named
after a garden store in neighboring New
Jersey, this two-time Grammy-nominated
band was formed by songwriters Adam
Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood.
Interestingly, bassist Schlesinger penned
the title song for That Thing You Do, a
1996 Tom Hanks film about a 1960s one-hit-wonder band. The title track became
a hit (unlike the film), and the band has
continued to churn them out ever since.
Fo W’s original lineup, which also includes
guitarist Jody Porter and drummer Brian
Young (formerly of the Posies), has remained
unchanged since their first tour.
Full of blazing power pop and acoustic-driven ballads, Sky Full of Holes comes just in
time for late-summer fun. The stories remain
great, and the songs have the same feel that
longtime fans expect (check out “Road
Song”), with a gentle, lap-steel love song
quickly being taken over by a happy and
quacky pop song with a big horn section.
The different styles work well with this fun
and sometimes-clever group of tunes, many
of which sound destined for Top 40 radio.
The album doesn’t have all the scrap and surliness of their earliest stuff—this outing has
its share of Hollywood gloss—but then what
is crunchy power pop all about, anyway?
Fun, that’s all. So if you’re into Big Star, Evan
Dando, and Weezer, Sky Full of Holes is definitely worth a listen. —Rich Osweiler