Named for six heads sporting jet-black tresses—which stood out in bland, blonde, snow-blanketed Minneapolis then as now—Têtes Noires were yet another of my favorite devotedly eccentric and startlingly original indie-rock acts from an era when weirder really was better in the underground. The six-member, largely a cappella, all-female troupe was for me as beloved as their male Twin Cities peers the Replacements and Hüsker Dü.
Regrettably lost in the ears-ringing chaos of my coverage from South by Southwest last March was any mention of Phox, a sextet from Baraboo, Wisc. whose set of charmingly fragile but nonetheless impressive indie-folk-rock/low-key ork-pop/woodsy psychedelia a la the Incredible String Band impressed me as much as anything else I saw. So let me make it up by giving an early nod to the group’s self-titled debut album, which officially drops on June 24.
Recorded at Justin Vernon’s home studio in Eau Claire, the breathy vocals of singer Monica Martin are front and center throughout the dozen tracks on Phox; some have glowingly compared here to Feist, though I hear a duskier Billie Holiday soulfulness that Leslie F. and her many imitators lack. But Phox absolutely is a band—listen to the way the instruments build to a gorgeous swell in the climax to the gorgeously lazy six-minute “Laura,” or how the players vary the dynamics and intertwine their melodic lines in “Slow Motion” and “Satyr and the Faun.”
Bonafide legends on the New York music scene, Village Voice music writer Greg Tate and monster bassist Jared Michael Nickerson came together in 1999 to form Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber, a sprawling and ever-changing group of musicians who cut a unique path through soul, jazz, hip-hop, rock, and avant-garde sounds. As Arkestra conductor Tate puts it, “Burnt Sugar got the nerve to claim Sly Stone, Morton Feldman, Billie Holiday, Jimi Hendrix and Jean Luc Ponty as progenitors.”
A must-see if the enesemble is playing when you visit the Big Apple, Chicago is lucky to be hosting some of its key members (including Nickerson, drummer Matsu, and TV on the Radio and Nick Waterhouse sax player Paula Henderson) on Thursday, May 1 via the “eight-piece-renegade-funk-&-roll splinter-cell pop group” Rebellum, which is celebrating a new release called The Darknuss. The band will play two sets at 9 and 11 p.m. at Constellation, 3111 N. Western.
Food and music always have been twin passions for Harlem-born Kelis Rogers. Let’s not forget that after two introductory albums of solid neo-soul, she broke big in the pop world with the indelible 2003 hit “Milkshake,” a tune from the aptly titled Tasty that stands as a sweeter pop confection from producer Pharrell Williams than even “Blurred Lines” or “Happy.” But she’s kept her loves separate since then, spending the latter half of the last decade out of the musical spotlight, recovering from her split with rapper Nas, working as a single mom, attending Le Cordon Bleu, and eventually landing a show on the Cooking Channel.
Now this effervescent and irrepressible talent is back singing in the kitchen, delivering exactly what the title of her sixth studio album Food promises: The tracks include “Jerk Ribs,” “Friday Fish Fry,” “Biscuits n’ Gravy,” “Cobbler,” and “Breakfast.” The singer’s four-year-old son introduces the latter—“Hey guys, are you hungry?
Though I have plenty of friends, now and back in the nostalgia-tainted ’90s, with a borderline obsessive love for Greg Dulli—most of them women, oddly enough—the grungy Cincinnati soul man always left me cold. There was of course the off-putting persona of the drug-addled bad-boy in search of salvation; for that shtick, I always preferred the far more enlightened, slightly less bro-ish Mark Lanegan, with whom Dulli collaborated in the Gutter Twins. But there also was the Afghan Whigs’ music, which only was impressive if you suspended all concerns about authenticity: As campy blaxploitation, it rankled only slightly less than the histrionic sounds of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.
Don’t be distracted by delirious hosannas from the faithful: Dulli hasn’t grown much at age 50, and he certainly hasn’t altered the Whigs’ formula on the band’s first album in 16 years, except perhaps for the worst.
Though rarely recognized as such in the U.S., Damon Albarn was one of the most ambitious and distinctive artists to emerge in the ’90s, leaving a lasting and valuable legacy with Blur’s collected output. He’s also been one of the alternative era’s most ambitious and consistently rewarding survivors, with projects as rich and diverse as Gorillaz, the Good, the Bad & the Queen, and Mali Music, and only the occasional misstep (see the 2012 opera Dr. Dee). Amid all this activity, it’s been easy to overlook the fact that he’s never given us a proper solo album—until now.
Clearly, Albarn thrives on collaboration, but it’s also possible that he’s been afraid to stand naked and alone, having adorned so much of his work with the arch ironic detachment of the sociological observer.
Alas, as timing would have it, you will have to miss one of them, but both are worthy of your attention.
Though the Cucumbers never got quite as much attention as the Bongos, the Feelies, or the dB’s during the “Hoboken is the new Liverpool” power-pop explosion of the early ’80s, Deena Shoskes and Jon Fried gave us one indelible pop classic (“My Boyfriend”) and innumerable inspired shows back in the day.
Long before rock-critic geeks engaged in tiresome debates about “popism vs. rockism,” an argument recently reprised as the avocation of a more “poptimistic” point of view, the ’80s presented a troubling dilemma for serious young music fans and aspiring scribes.
On the one hand was the blatantly commercialized co-optation of the sounds and energy of punk rock as the endlessly more marketable New Wave, first by the major labels, and then by the nascent MTV. On the flip side was a noble, communal, and anti-commercial indie underground that forwarded the explosion of punk into a true alternative lifestyle. (Popist or rockist? Choose a side and fight to the death!)
The latter sounds got their epic celebration in print back in 2001 via Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground, 1981-1991.