Short Takes on Recent Releases | Music Review | Chicago Reader

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Short Takes on Recent Releases

A local psych maven's beautiful bad trip, Eef Barzelay's hip-hop ho, and collectivist free folk from Glasgow

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PLASTIC CRIMEWAVE SOUND | No Wonderland (Eclipse)

Steve Krakow, better known to many Chicagoans as Plastic Crimewave (or simply as Psychedelic Steve), works like a dedicated civil servant to advance the cause of the out-there. He's got a zine and a record label under the Galactic Zoo banner, a semiregular comic in the Reader devoted to obscure local musicians from the 60s and 70s, and even a modest freelance business doing pen-and-ink artwork for album covers and posters. Over the past ten years he's played welcome wagon to practically the entire Japanese heavy-psych scene, setting up local shows for groups like Acid Mothers Temple, Nisennenmondai, and Mainliner, and since 2004 he's curated the annual Million Tongues festival.

In fact Krakow does so much work on behalf of other people's music that it's easy to forget about his own bands. This hasn't always been such a bad thing: Utopia Carcrash, for instance, looked like a hell of a lot of fun to be in (especially the destroying-Styrofoam-robots part) but was often a struggle to listen to. It'd be a shame to miss out on his current project, though. The new release from Plastic Crimewave Sound--a vinyl-only double LP called No Wonderland that's been more than two years in the making--is the most disciplined thing he's done so far.

You might not think that'd be a huge plus for hairy, wild-eyed, let-it-all-hang-out music like this, but the discipline that the members of Plastic Crimewave Sound seem to have learned from freakishly focused masters like Keiji Haino and Makoto Kawabata is more Shaolin monk than Sunday-school teacher. They elevate their instincts above their egos, occupying sonic space (or leaving it empty) according to the logic of the music--a way of doing what's natural that paradoxically comes only from deep-in-the-bone training.

The guest-heavy lineup on No Wonderland orbits the core trio of Krakow (guitars and vocals), Mark Lux (bass), and Lawrence Peters (drums and percussion). Guitarist Cat Chow left the band during the album's gestation period, and electronicist Andy Ortmann left afterward--they've since been replaced by guitarist Nick Myers from Vee Dee and keyboardist Amy Cargill from Sharks and Seals, neither of whom appears on the record. Devendra Banhart, Chris Connelly, Michael Yonkers, and Fursaxa's Tara Burke all make spoken-word cameos, and it pleases me to be able to say they don't sound painfully out of place. Here and there you'll also hear Yonkers's fuzz guitar, contributions by two different sitar players, harp from Josephine Foster, an otherworldly faery band impersonated by three of the women from Spires That in the Sunset Rise--and that's not even the whole list.

None of these flourishes are necessary, but they're all beautiful--and dark, dark, dark, of a piece with the album as a whole. It's a dystopian bad trip, a Luciferian howl from a bottomless pit. You get the feeling every detail has been chosen to intensify the atmosphere of paranoia and dread, right down to the symbols next to the song titles on the back cover, which look like they ought to correspond to different songwriters or lineups but don't actually lead you anywhere.

Krakow says those symbols indicate the "direction" of each tune--up, down, into the void, et cetera--and that brings me to my only complaint. An album 77 minutes long is a real journey, and like any journey it would benefit from a human sense of pacing and scale. No Wonderland sometimes feels shapeless, not because it doesn't have peaks and valleys but because the peaks seem to come whenever they please. I'm certainly not asking for a conventional progression from conflict to climax to resolution, but I do wish that the rich and turbulent stream of consciousness animating this music flowed a bit more smoothly. --Monica Kendrick

EEF BARZELAY | Bitter Honey (Spinart)

Eef Barzelay's new solo acoustic record, Bitter Honey, opens with the lines, "That was my ass you saw bouncin' next to Ludacris / It was only on-screen for a second, but it's kinda hard to miss." Honey, the song's protagonist, goes on to inform us that the other "hoochie skanks" who shake what God gave 'em in rap videos "ain't got shit" on her--and "one of Nelly's bodyguards" even "totally agrees."

You might not guess it from those lyrics, but Barzelay is the singer-songwriter of a laid-back alt-country band called Clem Snide. Formed in Boston in the early 90s and currently stationed in New York, the band's a longtime favorite of cynical grad students and readers of No Depression, and he's the number one reason. His voice, the most lonesome this side of Nick Drake or Will Oldham, can climb from a quavering, melancholy murmur to a choked yelp, and he's got a real talent for turning a phrase--just when you're thinking he's being too clever by half, he'll go and stick you in the guts.

Those first lines from "Ballad of Bitter Honey," for example, teeter on the edge of Barenaked Ladies novelty-tune schlock. But the second verse makes it clear Barzelay isn't interested in parody. He wants to dig beneath the superficial and unearth the private truths of a woman whose life most people wouldn't give a second thought.

Honey, it turns out, has had it rough. Her mother cleaned the houses of wealthy white people till the day she died. Honey tried to finish nursing school but dropped out after "all those broken bodies" started to get to her. It was then she realized she didn't need to hit the books to turn dollars. After all, she had a great rack and knew how to arch her back. "No one should go without," Honey says. "Don't hate me 'cause I know just what this world is all about."

Barzelay's work in Clem Snide has often shared this combination of jarring gimmickry and genuine empathy--throughout his career he's buttered his bread by exploiting that apparent paradox. He's got his oh-so-sad-and-soothing voice, but he might use it to ask Bob Crane to keep his dick in his pants. Not exactly a topic Jeff Tweedy is clamoring to tackle.

But that's what makes Barzelay an interesting and unpredictable songwriter. Sometimes his silly-at-first-glance lyrics acquire depth and ambiguity, and sometimes they just stay silly. It's like he's trying the honey and the vinegar at the same time--you have to wonder what kind of flies he thinks he's gonna pull. --Brian McManus

SCATTER | The Mountain Announces (Blank Tapes)

Glasgow is one of the UK's major producers of indie music, with overseas exports ranging from the Fire Engines to Belle & Sebastian and the Pastels to Sons & Daughters. The band Scatter, a loose collective of 8 to 12 musicians, is likewise a product of this prolific and tight-knit scene.

With instrumentation that includes cornet, flute, viola, megaphone, guitar, bouzouki, drums, harmonium, and whatever else they can get their mitts on, they combine an extraordinary number of genres--free jazz, eastern European and Egyptian folk, avant-rock, the "Greek blues" called rembetika--in murky, meandering tunes that alternate between composed melodies and structured improvisation. Even their reworkings of Scottish and Irish folk songs, punctured by the pinched, affected soprano of Hanna Tuulikki Andrews, graft other styles onto the traditional material.

As members come and go, Scatter's musical focus and creative processes shift: guitarist Nick McCarthy, for instance, left after 2004's Surprising Sing Stupendous Love to concentrate on Franz Ferdinand, but that record clearly reflects his interest in avant-rock. The Mountain Announces, Scatter's second full-length, is dominated by guitarist Chris Hladowski, who has an inborn love of Polish music and an impressive collection of Moroccan ouds and can make a bouzouki seem to weep. The marriage of deep intuition and wild abandon in his playing lends many of the tracks a desperately celebratory edge. "O Death" and "Delitier the Organ" recall the dark exuberance of some klezmer or the bristling swagger of a New Orleans jazz funeral.

Like their fellow Glaswegians in Arab Strap, Scatter like to add contextless and slightly cryptic monologues to their music--an unfortunate predilection, since the delivery usually sounds forced and overstrict alongside the impulsive swells of the band's free-folk drone. It tends to work out best when the words engage the music directly, like when the fantastically bratty stomp of the title track spars playfully with the rhythm of the lyrics.

Scatter's urge to involve as many musical styles as possible is often a curse as well as a blessing: "The Downie Dens o' Yarrow" sets the lyrics of an Irish folk song to the melody of a rembetika tune, which sounds so unnatural it verges on grating. Thankfully the "group mind" aspect of their music-making approach prevents any one influence from prevailing for long, and the moments of awfulness are just as fleeting as the moments of brilliance. --Mia Lily Clarke

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