A CERTAIN RATIO
(Soul Jazz Recordings)
Classic Manchester band puts the motion back in emotionless.
For decades, the first, last, and only words uttered in the recap of Manchester's Factory Records were Joy Division and New Order. But recently, the independent labels Les Temps Modernes and Soul Jazz have taken to exhuming long-buried Factory releases by groups like Josef K only to find their contents in startling symmetry with current indie rock. A Certain Ratio is the most recent and most deserving resurrection. Compiling singles that have been out of print since the mid-'80s, Early is a riveting collection of robotic white funk that easily eclipses the work of postmillennial bass thumpers like !!!. Where Ian Curtis represented an emotional nadir, A Certain Ratio embodies the danse macabre, the violent twitching fits of a pallid corpse. The music is tense and anxious and impossible to file under any genre heading. "Waterline" crackles like a bucket full of firecrackers, and foghornlike trumpets bleat morosely through the zombie-eyed cover of Banbarra's "Shack Up." And above the flange guitar and voodoo percussion is the foreboding voice of Simon Topping, speaking lines like "My heart was just an open sore" as if he were administering the last rites. Inspiring, unsettling, and ultimately mesmerizing, A Certain Ratio emerges from the long shadow of history fueled by black energy and a rhythmic persistence that is downright demonic. Unknown pleasures, indeed. J. Edward Keyes
Moody electro-rock therapy best experienced on headphones.
Denali's Maura Davis has a major-league voice, and we're not talking bullpen catcher—we're talking Barry Bonds. It's got range, push, and sheen to spare. This attribute normally doesn't bode well for small-scale rock. It's as if the mere presence of such technical prowess disqualifies the vocalist's heart, a decidedly intangible element. A quick check of Davis' bio reveals that she opted to front Denali rather than pursue opera. Case closed. Her band lives and dies with her lungs. Even in their best, darkest moments, the tinny synthesizer and building/quaking guitars never solely occupy the forefront; as a vessel, bassist Keeley Davis, drummer John Fuller (both moonlight in Engine Down), and guitarist Cam DiNunzio are Metro bus, not Mercedes Benz. A study in depressive compulsion, Denali is at times riveting and telescopic enough to recall Portishead's Dummy (no, this isn't trip-hop). The methodical build of "Time Away" and "French Mistake," two tracks submerged in subtly threatening electronic backwash, typify the record's shoe-gazer flow. By the time the comparably up-tempo "Gunner" rolls around a half hour into the record, I had forgotten that this band even had a bassist. Denali has the youth and chops to iron out something tremendous someday. I wonder if this isn't merely their Pablo Honey. Andrew Bonazelli
THE PROMISE RING
The Next Big Thing's monster risk sorta pays off.
Does any band attract more condescending pity than the Promise Ring? Their lead singer had a brain tumor, they play rock so rudimentary and frail that a stiff breeze from Fred Durst's ass could blow them over, and they constantly set themselves up for ridicule by opening for bands like Bad Religion. To top it off, they've torn up their ticket for national celebrity by issuing Wood/Water. The Ring could have easily replicated the bob-and-weave hyperactivity of Very Emergency and ended up opening for Weezer at the Gorge this summer—hell, they still might—but instead, they threw a wad of postproduction molasses into their pop gears. Heavy on organ flourishes, down-tempo acoustic strumming, and hooks raided from the Costello estate, Wood/Water has a muted strum-and-drain closer to singer/songwriter Davey von Bohlen's side project Vermont than anything Ring-related. This isn't necessarily a bad thing; the breezy ballad "Wake Until April" is an ethereal beauty, and the "I'm just happy you stuck around" chorus to "Become One Anything One Time" is supplemented by joyful, tempered "ahh-ahhs." Von Bohlen has improved as a writer, too, eschewing his sometimes irritating wordplay for heartfelt sentiments that suit the new tone. Yep, good stuff that'll get them booed off many a stage. Andrew Bonazelli
Don't Let the Bastards Get You Down
"If it sounds country, man, that's what it is." —Kris Kristofferson
The folks who write off Jackson Browne as "that guy with the song about his roadies" are the same people that only remember Kris Kristofferson for his acting role in Heaven's Gate—and maybe, just maybe, they know that he's the man behind the Janis Joplin hit "Me and Bobby McGee." But the 20 or so artists on this 17-song tribute album need not be briefed on Kristofferson's poetic prowess. Taken mostly from three Kristofferson records released between 1970 and 1972, most of the 17 songs on Don't Let the Bastards Get You Down work around the hungover-and-heartbroken theme that typifies so much of Kristofferson's music. Far from being one-note, Kristofferson was also adept at telling a simple story, and songs like "Jody and the Kid"—a sort of "Bobby McGee Part II"—showcase that proclivity. Television guitar legend Tom Verlaine opens the album; his version of "The Hawk," all hollow, echo-note warbling and sad-slide stuttering, is a lovely, countrified homage. Weird keyboard/feedback punks Polara add some ethereal electronic buzz and texture to "Just the Other Side of Nowhere," while California's harmony hippies Mother Hips pay much respect to "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down." John Doe, Mark Kozelek, Jon Langford, and Kelly Hogan are among the other esteemed guests doing their part to push Kristofferson out of the margins and into the text. Laura Learmonth