Algiers (Anti-) is not just the capital and largest city of Algeria but the New Orleans neighborhood where Tucson-based, Texicali-flavored indie rockers Calexico cut its seventh studio album. But rather than embracing the sonic nuances of the Big Easy like so many other bands that decamp to this port city to record, Joey Burns and John Convertino instead use the hybridization of genres that’s endemic to the heart and soul of this port city’s music scene as their creative guide. The band’s trademark use of mariachi horns and southwestern noir aesthetic is still intact, but used to great effect in the chugging twangfest that is “Splitter” or while incorporating Cuban mambo time signatures on “Sinner in the Sea,” a gem that’s reminiscent of Los Lobos’ more eclectic work. Elsewhere, Calexico continues to admirably mix it up. “No Te Vayas” is a pleading ballad that translates to “Don’t Go” and crooned in Spanish by the duo of Jacob Valenzuela and Spanish artist Jairo Zavala (a.k.a. Depedro). While the delicately plucked flamenco guitar and urgent brushstrokes of “Puerto” add urgency to this tale of greedy conquistadors, the fuzz guitar and the call-and-response of the couplet “say a little goodbye to your love” could easily make it the soundtrack for anyone’s heartbreak. Calexico’s latest collection of songs is a welcome addition to the band’s already intriguing mélange of recordings.
Pound of Dirt (Modern Vintage Recordings) is far from what you’ll get from the dozen songs that comprise the second studio outing from Sister Sparrow & the Dirty Birds. Instead, what gets served up by this nine-piece is the same kind of vibrant funk you’d expect to hear from fellow Brooklynites Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings—a punchy brass section, fluid rhythm section and a sassy soul shouter. And while Jones is roughly twice the age of Arleigh Kincheloe, the latter can more than hold her own whether she eerily sounds like Sheryl Crow on the Americana ballad “Millie Mae,” snarls her way through the gritty “Dirt” or applies the kind of blistering yowl on the infectious foot-stomper “Too Much” that you wouldn’t expect from someone that’s so slight of frame. Elsewhere, brother Jackson, whose blistering harp playing is reminiscent of Blues Traveler’s John Popper on the frenetic and energetic opener “Make It Rain,” makes more like Little Walter Johnson on the gritty instrumental “Bulldozer” while the snappy timekeeping provided by cousin Bram and the squiggly synthesizer lines contributed by guest keyboardist Jonathan Anderson on “Feather of a Queen” allows some of the Dirty Birds to channel their inner George Clinton. It all ends up being a wonderful collision of rootsy genres that makes you forget this ridiculously talented crew of musicians hails from New York City and not New Orleans.
Long Live the King (RockBeat Records) is really not too ostentatious a title for a compilation given the fact that the late Dickie Goodman, also known as the King of Novelty, created a comedic genre that blazed a creative trail for Weird Al Yankovic, the modern-day equivalent of Goodman. But while Yankovic’s greatest talent is recrafting pop songs into clever parodies, his Brooklyn-born predecessor was a true creature of the studio—cobbling together snippets of popular songs and plugging them into a scenario with a pop culture connection while posing as a reporter on the street to tie the whole scenario together. This anthology not only contains early songs addressing the ’50s sci-fi craze (“The Flying Saucer Part 1 & 2,” both 1956 Top 20 hits; Santa & the Satellite Part 1 & 2”), but spins on the ’60s 007 craze (“James Bomb”), college unrest (“On Campus”) and even the moon landing (“Luna Trip”). Most will be familiar with the ubiquitous ’70s AM staple “Mr. Jaws,” which found Goodman targeting Steven Spielberg’s cinematic shark while tossing in samples of songs by War, K.C. and the Sunshine Band, Glen Campbell, The Bee Gees and The Eagles.
Politics was also a popular target whether it was during the administrations of Nixon (“Watergrate”), Carter (“Election’80”) or Reagan (“Election ’84”). And while Goodman in 1989, son Jon put together “Election 2012,” which touches on the Obama/Romney race and using contemporary touches like having the election be determined by an appearance on America’s Got Talent all the while tossing in those sound bites of both candidates singing and song samples of Bruce Springsteen, Human League, The Lion King, E.T. and The Go-Gos.
Working Girl’s Guitar (Bloodshot) is the latest record to come out in what’s turned out to be the year of the rockabilly queen following releases by a pair of legends—the late Janis Martin and the very alive Wanda Jackson. This collection of songs comes by way of next generation twang merchant Rosie Flores, whose origins date back to the same SoCal cow-punk scene that spawned Dwight Yoakam, X, Los Lobos and the Blasters. Having worked with idols Martin and Jackson, Flores is more than qualified to pick up the torch and although this outing is only nine songs long, she more than makes up lack of quantity with some serious quality. Starting out with the chugging title cut, the rest of Guitar goes on to embrace ethereal country (“Yeah Yeah”), gnarly instrumentals (“Surf Demon #5), torch-song saloon songs (“If [I Could Be With You]”) and covers of the Beatles (“While My Guitar Gently Weeps”) and Martin (“Drugstore Rock and Roll”).
Thankful N’ Thoughtful (Anti-) continues the remarkable run of rebirth that has become the story of Bettye LaVette’s career in these later stages of her life. Even though she showed great promise as an up-and-coming soul singer when she started out 50 years ago, circumstance and bad music industry mojo kept her R&B’s best-kept secret until LaVette’s improbable comeback started with 2005’s brilliant, Joe Henry-produced I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise. Thankful, her third album since then, once again finds her dipping into unlikely canons for material and transforming these songs into entirely different entities. With help from Cassandra Wilson producer Craig Street, the Michigan native infuses her growl into gems by an unlikely array of artists ranging from Bob Dylan and the Black Keys to Savoy Brown and Gnarls Barkley. Most effective are two different readings of the Ewan MacColl’s “Dirty Old Town,” (made famous by The Pogues). The first version is a more upbeat reading that incorporates imagery from the 1967 Detroit riots and the latter, a hazy walk-through with the minimalist accompaniment of a solo snare drum and a sluggish soul groove.
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