You Are #6: More Music for Six Musicians
Serious sextet takes time to party.
Among the many great things about Don Byron is the way he collapses the distinctions between high art and low, between generic formulas and avant attitude. Six years ago, his Music for Six Musicians (Nonesuch) was a dark and explicitly political work, pretty much in line with expectations for an intellectually oriented composer and grant winner. Now Byron's returned with a non sequitur follow-up that goes to the once-hip, now-fading Latin jazz quarter, and brings to it so much new energy and fresh joy that he ends up reviving the genre and creating one of his most exhilarating albums. You Are #6 manages to fall right in the sweet spot between Afro-Caribbean tradition (as wonderfully upheld by conguero veteran Milton Cardona) and harmonically impetuous jazz (as beautifully led by Byron and his restless pianist, Edsel Gomez). The two longest tracks, "A Whisper in My Ear (for Mario Bauza)" and "Dark Room," are each as exciting a piece of Latin groove as you're likely to hear. Other tracks move into more of a samba vein, while "Shake 'em Up" is a straight-up insouciant calypso cover (some long-forgotten radio hit) that turns into a great exchange of choruses by the horns. Is it ironic? Is it serious? With Byron, the categories don't apply. Mark D. Fefer
Byron's Six Musicians will perform at On the Boards on Fri,, Oct. 26 as part of the Earshot Jazz Festival.
TREMBLING BLUE STARS
Alive to Every Smile
Taking the Cure for their broken hearts.
The days of teary-eyed, passive pop may at long last be nearing dusk. Taken together, the evidence of waning affection for Belle & Sebastian and the sudden prominence of dirty-deed doers like the Tight Bros. From Way Back When seem to indicate that night is indeed drawing near. Pity, then, the Trembling Blue Stars, whose latest outing goes a long way to earn the honor of being the best record the Cure never made. Alive to Every Smile, the fourth record from TBS, is rich and striking. It's an experiment in texture and mood: No single song stands out, but like the Cure's Disintegration, the 11 compositions work together to create a nearly seamless whole. Bob Wratten sings like a man with perpetual shivers, and his fey voice glides effortlessly over icy sheets of keyboard and twinkling, barely there guitar. At times, the black shadow of Robert Smith looms a bit too large: The chiming two-minute intro of "With Every Story," for example, lifts liberally from "Pictures of You." But there are enough moments of stark individuality—the plucked acoustic guitar that forms the backbone of "Maybe After All," the plaintive piano that guides the serene "Here All Day"—to grant the record shading and depth. The Stars' style of precious pop may be headed lemminglike toward extinction, but Alive to Every Smile assures one last great gasp before the inevitable plunge. J. Edward Keyes
Husband-wife country duo tells more hauntingly beautiful tales from the crypt.
The saddest moment on the Handsome Family's excellent Twilight—an album comprised entirely of sad moments if there ever was one—isn't when Brett and Rennie Sparks describe a laid-off mother who kills her kids so they won't be poor. Instead, the saddest moment on the band's fifth creepy-crawly album of alt-country mourning has an otherworldly enormity much greater than those real-life tragedies: "There are birds in the darkness who lead lost dogs off highways, save children stuck in wells," Brett sings in his basement baritone on the surreal "Birds You Cannot See." It's more of a wish than an observation, an impassioned plea for faith in something larger than life: if not God, then love; if not love, then nature, birds—anything that would assure listeners that life isn't nearly as stark, dark, and directionless as the one Rennie describes in the Handsome Family's doom 'n' gloom world. Brett never gets an answer, but who ever does on such matters? The most we can ask out of life is to have an album as hauntingly touching as Twilight, an album so macabre in its implications that it can't help but remind us that, if nothing else, we're not dead yet. Jimmy Draper
Hardcore stalwarts get the last word.
The first few times I listened to the new album by these hardcore innovators, I was disappointed that a set that started off so strong couldn't maintain its intensity. But when I began thinking of The Argument as a vinyl record, with two musically distinct sides—one urgent, one more introspective—the disc became more compelling. More than any other band that comes to mind, Fugazi tie together elements of Sonic Youth, the Grateful Dead, and James Brown-and eight albums and 14 years down the line, they're still tinkering with their talents. The Argument seamlessly weaves cello, female backing vocals (courtesy of Unrest's Bridget Cross and Bikini Kill's Kathi Wilcox), and second percussionist Jerry Busher into the band's intricate punk-dub meditations and catharses. In their lyrics—hitting predictable topics such as gentrification and execution—they come closer than they have in years to finding a midpoint between Ian MacKaye's bent toward blunt statements and Guy Picciotto's fondness for oblique puzzles. On "Cashout," MacKaye opens, not with slogans, but narrative ("On the morning of the first eviction/They carried out the wishes of the landlord and his son"). Picciotto still dances around his subjects, but the impressionistic lyrics on, for instance, "Full Disclosure" ("Full disclosure/Coming sponsored by no one/Take me over and blow out my mind") at least hint at information and advertising overload. A fine outing. Chris Nelson