Like Elliott Smith’s From a Basement on the Hill, Jay Bennett’s final album Kicking at the Perfumed Air is unfinished. Yet it’s still relatively polished, and a cruel reminder of what we lost when Bennett died in May of 2009. One of this era’s greatest talents in any style of music, the ex-Wilco multi-instrumentalist could play pretty much any instrument and could write pretty much anything as well. And his songwriting was only getting stronger. We picked his previous, solo acoustic album Whatever Happened, I Apologize – issued a couple of months before his death by insurgent Chicago netlabel rockproper – as one of that year’s best. And over two years later, our review of that album remains one of the ten most popular articles in the history of this website. Despite a chronic back condition that required him to take the pain medication that ultimately killed him, this album is the reverse image of the previous one: upbeat, fun and often very funny, it puts to rest any claim that Bennett might have been a suicide.
There are a couple of stark acoustic tracks, just guitar and voice, that revert to the vibe of the previous album. When Heaven Held the World, a sad country ballad, ends on an unexpectedly hopeful note, while Footprints somewhat grimly recalls an affair with someone who “only left footprints on my heart…you were just her to take pictures.” There are also a couple of first-rate collaborations with Bennett’s longtime pal Edward Burch: Second-Last Call, a raucous country blues that paints a sarcastic, surreal barroom scene, and Twice a Year, a lament which despite its roughness has layers of piano and acoustic guitar that are absolutely exquisite. The title track of sorts is a cover of the Boomtown Rats’ classic Diamond Smiles, done as oldtime country with layers of acoustic guitars, piano bass and mandolin that only enhance the song’s brutal sarcasm: in this one the spoiled suicide girl grew up on a plantation. There’s a marvelous rumble after Bennett reminds that “love is for others but me it destroys,” and a LOL funny ending.
The best song here is Mirror Ball, a gorgeously lush, distantly Big Star influenced psychedelic pop ballad. It’s as good as anything Alex Chilton ever wrote, a bartender’s remembrance of a star he never knew. Hotel Song is another gorgeous one, a big towering ballad with watery Leslie-speaker guitar in the background, Bennett playing agile Stax/Volt leads and finally a pretty unhinged, icepick solo over Jason Sipe’s blistering, sustained power chords. There’s also a funky, Afrobeat-flavored number, a Dylanesque chamber-pop ballad, the bitter, rustic waltz Chamber Physics and a tribute to beer funnier than anyone else’s since Tom T. Hall did I Like Beer in 1975.
So why didn’t we review this when it came out over a year ago? At this point, it’s impossible to remember. Yes, we were remiss: this is our atonement. Download it for free from rockproper and be grateful they put this out.
Every day, our top 666 songs of alltime countdown gets one step closer to #1. Tuesday’s song is #316:
Big Star – September Gurls
This one fell off this list and then fell back on because it’s so damn pretty and poignant. Don’t dismiss the song because it’s revered in the indie world, or because the band is overrated. This might be the greatest powerpop song ever written – and it wasn’t even a radio hit. Mp3s are everywhere: apparently it was on the soundtrack to a Fox tv show from the 90s.
Damn, this is a good album. With their first release in decades, Ardent Music, the newly reactivated Memphis label that launched Big Star has definitely got back on the good foot. On their debut cd, retro funky soul band Jump Back Jake will win fans from the camp that discovered soul music from people like Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, Eli “Paperboy” Reed or Robert Cray as well as anybody lucky (or old) enough to have discovered this stuff the first time around. Fans of the Bar-Kays, Howard Tate, James Brown and Isaac Hayes’ Hot Buttered Soul album are in for a treat here. These guys really know their stuff, moving effortlessly from slinky Booker T organ groove to jangly Curtis Mayfield balladry to straight-up 60s funk, with a more aggressive, early 70s style blues guitar edge. The horn arrangements are gorgeously, sparingly retro, bringing out every bit of longing or bravado in a sax or trombone line. Frontman/guitarist Jake Rabinbach (who also mystifyingly moonlights as a sideman in one of the suckiest bands on the planet, 80s top 40 imitators Francis & the Lights) plays with soul and swing, unafraid to light up a song with a big incisive crescendo but never sinking into whiteboy wankiness.
The cd’s first track works a vintage Steve Cropper style guitar vamp with a nasty blues touch, setting the tone for the rest of the cd. The single best cut on the album is the second cut, The Flood, a slow, slinky organ groove that jumps to doublespeed and then brings it down to a sweetly dark horn chart, adding voices at the end before gracefully taking it down to just the trombone. Attempts at a beautiful, jangly, midtempo Curtis Mayfield soul ballad and a late 60s Charlie Rich country shuffle are rousingly successful. The big 6/8 kiss-off ballad teleports Blonde on Blonde to 1974 with more aggressive blues guitar: “You can be queen of the ice and snow,” Rabinach snarls. With its rapidfire, aphoristic vocal line and clever lyrics, the upbeat Pay Out on the Front End beautifully mines a late 60s vein. There’s also a ballad that builds to a big gospel vamp, another one that sounds like a rewrite of She Caught the Katy and a big, rousing number wherein Rabinach mysteriously goes on and on how he wants to be like Samson, “And I would give everything to the ladies like Delilah downtown.” The album ends on a radically different note, proving the band equally adept at early 70s Badfinger-style powerpop, right down to a neat George Harrison-esque guitar solo. The only miss here is aptly titled Terrible Mistakes, proof positive – as if you really need it – that vintage soul and the Jonas Bros. don’t mix.
It seems there are two Jakes in the band, Rabinbach recently off on the road with the other band, although all indications are that this will be a brief hiatus. In the meantime, the band continues to tour as a trio. They have all sorts of goodies available including free live mp3s from a recent Minglewood Hall show. Watch for this on our Best Albums of 2009 list at the end of the year.
If you want to play great guitar, watch this guy. This is somebody who once placed Comfortably Numb all the way through, solo onstage on electric guitar, as a funk instrumental. And it actually worked. Brilliantly, in fact. As a sideman, Pete Galub has a resume that would make a lot of guys blush, as Amy Allison’s once-and-future lead guitarist and as one of the original Extroverts in Greta Gertler’s band. That he’d pick up gigs with those two songwriters makes even more sense when you hear his own material: Galub can’t resist a clever pun or a playful musical jape and neither can those two. But he saves his most ferocious playing for his own stuff. Thursday night at Lakeside he put on a clinic in understatedly melodic powerpop and noise-rock guitar, two styles that you wouldn’t think would go well together, maybe, unless you were a Steve Wynn fan. In fact, it sounded a lot like Galub had been holed up with a bunch of Steve Wynn bootleg tracks, which as it turned out, he hadn’t. Then again, maybe the wheel was invented simultaneously by two different guys who barely knew each other.
Fast and furious as he can be, Galub didn’t waste any notes, choosing his spots judiciously before hitting his distortion pedal or shading the textures with a deft twist or two on the bass, the treble or the volume (subtlety is everything in this guy’s book). Backed by a subtle, in-the-pocket rhythm section, he’d start out with a low growl and then make his way methodically to the upper registers, adding a snarling, wailing, dirty ferocity, then backing off, then turning the demons loose again. Bending and twisting a series of richly sustained chords, sinuous pop and country licks, he’d go on for a couple of minutes and would still leave the crowd wanting more when he wrapped up the solo. The midtempo Big Star-inflected number that he played next-to-last turned into a launching pad for some pyrotechnics that sounded straight out of the Karl Precoda songbook. Perhaps somewhat fortuituosly, Galub closed the set with the slow, tongue-in-cheek 6/8 ballad Boy Gone Wrong ( the title track from his most recent solo cd), inviting up Steve Wynn lead player Jason Victor to join him. Victor took his time tuning up. “Is there something you’d like to promote?” Galub asked him, giving him a chance to plug a gig or two.
“Sleep,” Victor mumbled. Yet when the time came, Galub looked stage right and started pouncing on a quick series of chords, and Victor was right there to join him in a noisy duel just as he does in Wynn’s band. Galub held down the lows, wildly tremolo-picking until he’d built a roaring, whirring cauldron of sound, Victor chopping at his strings like the chainsaw killer in Last House on the Left. It wasn’t pretty but it was a blast to hear. The crowd roared for an encore and Galub reverted to quick, tersely effective powerpop mode. Suddenly choosing this gig over Devi (whose lead player is also a serious monster), who were playing at Shrine, seemed like the right choice this time around. Galub’s next gig is with Serena Jost’s band at 7:30 PM on Apr 29 at le Poisson Rouge; watch this space for his next as a bandleader.