“Off the Beaten Track” – Album reviews by Mary Leary

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Brett Rosenberg – Born Twice

Brett Rosenberg - Born TwiceI’m writing this for people who are captivated by Joe Jackson, Matthew Sweet, and maybe, if they’ve been digging into Pop’s pile o’ treasure, Marshall Crenshaw, Spoon, or The Lovin’ Spoonful. Has the sunny lilt of Pop-rock managed to rise from the ashes of 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and other depressing and debilitating events? And is anyone under 35 adding a contemporary spin to it?

If Brett Rosenberg is any indication, the answer to both queries is “Yes!” The resilience of the American psyche is just one of the reasons to take joy in his latest album, an impressive affirmation of life and the music that’s often helped Americans deal with traffic, break-ups, or just plain livin’.

Born Twice is the first recording emitting from Rosenberg’s desire to follow his own muses. It’s what happened when he walked away from about eight years of critically-acclaimed work with or behind an impressive list, including Bebe Buell, The Figgs, Army of Jasons, and Graham Parker, along with his own Boston-based combos.

Here’s what Brett has to say about relocating from Boston to Nashville, and the album: “It’s scary moving somewhere where you’re a total alien, and a lot of songs, like “Hey Bartender” and “No, Seriously Thank You,” deal with those feelings of being a stranger in town and spending lots of time having flashbacks to your old life. “Hotel Blues” is a road song, written at a Clarion Inn in Virginia. Basically, I stayed in Boston for a long time and got very comfortable — everyone knew what to expect from me and I generally lived up to it. When you move someplace strange and you don’t have others around giving you signals all the time, you realize that you aren’t the person they/you thought you were at all. That sort of why I called it ‘Born Twice;’ it’s an attempt to alienate myself from my past. I also knew it was my last album before I was 30.”

It takes guts to start over. So far, the gamble is paying off – Born Twice highlights include “Some Other Life” and “Taken, both of which bring a nice Paul Westerberg or Marshall Crenshaw vibe. “Hotel Blues” evokes vintage Todd Rundgren, who, in his heyday, before the term was coined, was a master of Pop composition.

I think any of Rosenberg’s musical ancestors and influences would be comfortable taking credit for “Donna Says,” “Jewish Eyes,” or “Keep In Touch.” “Bristol” throws in a nice slice of barrelhouse blues, with some tasty electric lead. The real breath-stealer is the sublime “No, Seriously, Thank You.” This could be a song by Matthew Sweet at his best. It so convincingly evokes the heartbreak in a love affair gone away that, if I’ve forgotten how that feels, this song takes me there and, more remarkably, makes me want to go back again.

If, after hearing Rosenberg, you, too, crave more, it’s in the works: he’s in the basement with Eric McConnell, who recorded Loretta Lynn’s Van Lear Rose, which was produced by Jack White.

Micachu and the Shapes – Jewellery (Rough Trade)

Jewellery Album CoverLast year, the appearance of “Filthy Friends,” a free download meshing grime/industrial/rap, caused an underground tremor. Late this spring it was followed by an explosion in independent (a term that’s replaced “alternative”) music. That’s something one hears all the time, right? But the next cool Indie commodity is rarely truly independent. Instead, the term has come to mean, “what we acquire because other cool people do,” or the “alternative” illustrated by Dr. Seuss’s The Sneetches, where it constantly morphs but really means “better” more than “from the sort of small, independent label willing to spend time and money on something that’s great but which may never get much attention or help anyone pay a mortgage.”

Purportedly cool new releases drop daily. When I sample them I’m often bored by regurgitation and/or charisma posing as brilliance; the same-old same-old in a smartly-designed package. Or I’m disappointed by artists who lack the chops or vision to bring good ideas to effective fruition.

East Londoner Mica Levi (a.k.a. Micachu) is so effectively a real alternative (brilliant but category-confounding, compelling but not what is conventionally considered feminine or pretty, and steadfastly marching to her own beatbox) that she is not yet widely-known. On Jewellery she and the Shapes bust out with a freedom, and free-thinking, that may be welcomed only by ears hungering for something really different.

How does Micachu sound? Here’s a clue: About 30 years ago, after a lengthy South African trek, members of Wire, Fun Boy Three, Sonic Youth, The Shaggs, Joy Division, and the Slits ended up in a big orgiastic heap after dancing around trying to lure Don Von Vliet (a.k.a. Captain Beefheart) out of seclusion. Here’s another: Fans of Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 (the San Francisco combo that produced wonderfully cathartic dissonance from the late ‘80s until the beginning of this decade) who’ve been anxiously awaiting a new TFUL release finally have a fix.

I’m struggling to explain Micachu because I’ve been listening to Jewellery for weeks. The album so effectively incorporates electronics, peripheral noise, and organic rhythms that the sound of a trash can lid, a distant car alarm or door can trigger instant Micachu recall. Since the approach is purely intuitive, deconstruction misses the point: Mood flows into sound, through snippets of conversation and a forgotten dream from last week before there’s an aural outburst that “rocks” a la early Pink Floyd or TFUL 282.

Before this review starts to circle like a dervish I’ll suggest some quick Micachu jolts: audio/video of “Guts,” “Golden Phone” (see video below),“Curly Teeth,” or “Vulture.”

For more scattershot sounds, hear Mica as mixer: “Filthy Friends” (which samples a lot of the hip-hop and UK garage that helped show the way to her own voice), or “Kwesachu,” an intensely ambient/experimental mix that on June 6th appeared on Mica’s MySpace. Jewellery’s perfectly attenuated and emotively logical universe is my preferred Micachu happy place.

Whichever you prefer, I’d suggest at least giving the girl a listen: How often does a 21-year-old, or anyone, produce a groundbreaking masterpiece, one of the most important “pop” releases in 10 or more years?

Madame Pamita – Madame Pamita’s Wax Works (Old Time Is a Good Time)

Appearing at the Metaphor, Escondido, July 10

Madame Pamita's Wax WorksThis is for those millions of listeners who’ve been longing for a new recording that hisses along with the sounds of ukelele, autoharp, musical saw, kazoo, and “Imperial Banjeaurine” but who got cranky when the last few they uncovered weren’t captured on a state-of-the-art,1898 wax cylinder recording machine. Or for those gals who carefully apply pancake make-up before stepping into a dress so old it’s running out of places for patches. It’s absolutely for anyone who was originally captivated by The Squirrel Nut Zippers but then walked away shaking their head, sneering, “What dilettantes!”

Madame Pamita’s increasingly far afield (from her Los Angeles perch), field-style recordings are aesthetically dry and scratchy, unless your response to Robert Crumb’s Cheap Suit Serenaders was along the lines of, “This is just a little too smooth and pretty.” In that case, she may be just your cup of brew.

I could easily have nut-shelled this by saying that fans of the Serenaders and most Old Hat recordings might like this, but that wouldn’t have seemed worthy of the tremendous effort and socio-artistic obsessiveness attending Madame Pamita’s creation of her own funhouse mirror world. So I am going to say a few things more.

Madame Pamita is very unusual, and absolutely loving in her treatment of moldy chestnuts, including minstrel show classic, “He’s In The Jailhouse Now,” Charlie Poole’s “Moving Day” Dick Justice’s “Cocaine,” and even Blind Willie McTell’s barely moldly (courtesy of the White Stripes’s recent cover), “My Southern Can Is Mine.” Her own compositions nestle easily with the “real” ones, and have titles like, “Three Wishes,” “Mother Was a Sporting Girl,” and “Love is Good.”

There may be at least one error in the above credits – Madame Pamita’s are rather veiled, whether by minuscule script or form-over-substance. However, to my mind, it is somewhat lacking in etiquette to press my nose too hard behind the illusionist curtain comprising a good deal of her charm. The entire oeuvre is illusionist, aided at times by Patrick Weise, Peter Dilg, and, most recently, in London, Tom Rodwell and Art Terry. Indeed, this madame seems to be steadily creeping into another Next (Old) Big Thing spot, at least among the minds of those who are utterly perplexed at being born any time after 1950, or who simply crave sounds from other times and worlds. After all, Madame Pamita has twice been selected as “Critic’s Choice” in Time Out London.

If you’re nearly ready to seek out a musical emporium but holding back due to the need to pay your rent or some other pesky triviality, it seems to me that the words “Pay as you go,” or “Pay as you can,” appeared somewhere (perhaps the Ouija board in her site’s “Laboratory”, which is a very heady place; I may have imagined it). What I’m dead sure of is that receiving her CD is phenomenally exciting: there will be carefully handcrafted treats and bonuses, perhaps including your fortune – if not for a lifetime, at least for that moment. The website is as creatively driven as the CD, and offers static and moving pictures related to Madame Pamita’s many talents and activities, including “Treatises on Euphonious Prognostication,” a solarium and boudoir.

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