Rim Shots: Willis Earl Beal, the Bongos and Wooden Shjips

A periodic round-up of new releases

September 19, 2013

So much music, so little time: In an effort to better keep pace with the never-ending slew of new releases—especially those that are particularly worthy of your attention of especially undeserving of it—this blog introduces a new feature called Rim Shots: quick, single-paragraph reviews of albums you need to know about.

Willis Earl Beal, Nobody Knows (XL Recordings)

This fascinating former Chicagoan’s 2012 debut Acousmatic Sorcery was a stark bedroom masterpiece that many hailed as a soulful work of outsider art—much to Beal’s chagrin; unique he may be, but he’s nobody’s freak. Resenting the way that one packaged scattershot recordings, he was determined to make his second full album a more fully realized work, with more lush though never slick arrangements, better showcasing an amazingly powerful and versatile voice. Meanwhile, the overarching theme of making true and meaningful connections in this instant-gratification digital world remains, and it rings more true than ever.

Rating on the four-star scale: 3.5 stars.

The Bongos, Phantom Train (Jem)

For fans of power-pop, the genre never produced much better than the exuberant early work of Hoboken, N.J.’s Bongos, especially the first album Drums Along the Hudson (1982), the follow-up EP Numbers with Wings (1983), and the Mitch Easter-produced, Richard Barone/James Mastro offshoot Nuts and Bolts (1983). But like many groups in those days of a more stark delineation between art and commerce, the band lost its way when it briefly signed to a major label, and this newly remixed, formerly “lost” set from 1986 all too sadly finds it compromising and ruining what could have been another collection of Beatles and T. Rex-inspired pop gems with an overly polished and heavy-handed production that wasn’t going to get them played on radio back then and which won’t win any fans now.

Rating on the four-star scale: 1.5 stars.

Wooden Shjips, Back to Land (Thrill Jockey)

Consider this an early head’s up: The album won’t be released by Chicago’s beloved Thrill Jockey until November 12, but I haven’t been able to stop listening since I downloaded the advance a few weeks ago, and you need to know about these timeless, hypnotic, swirling, psychedelic melodies now. The San Francisco quartet has been recording since the mid-2000s—giant slabs of dark mystery built on the familiar elements of droning organ, fuzzed-out guitar, whispered vocals, and insistent, metronomic drums—in the grand tradition of the Velvet Underground to the Dream Syndicate and Spacemen 3 to the Black Angels. But after going back and devouring the back catalog, I can say they’ve never been as consistent, entrancing, necessary, and just plain perfect as they are on these eight new jams.

Rating on the four-star scale: 4 stars.

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