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Tuning in with Thomas Conner

Music reviews: Girls, Nirvana, Syleena Johnson, more

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girlscd.jpgAllow me a brief old-man moment: When I was young, we had (depending on where you configured the starting line) barely more than a quarter century of rock history to learn as dutiful, emerging music fans. Listening to an ELO album and maybe "American Pie" was like CliffsNotes. Today, kids have up to six decades to catch up with. Some abandon the survey courses and focus the inspiration on one specific era, like the early '80s (Twin Shadow, the Drums) or 1970s Laurel Canyon songwriters (Dawes, Fleet Foxes). Others, like San Francisco duo Girls, go for it all, trying their hand at absolutely anything from the whole span of rock's story.

The ingredients of Girls' sophomore album, "Father, Son, Holy Ghost" (True Panther) [3<br />
and a half stars], make a stew of shoegaze, doo-wop, Beatles solo records, space rock, surf guitar, bubblegum pop, folk and a whole lot of Pink Floyd. The fact that singer Christopher Owens and craftsman Chet "JR" White manage to make it all sound, if not unique, at least completely their own keeps the jumble from becoming an inside joke a la the Pooh Sticks. This isn't a send-up or a love letter; it's an economical, trickle-down synthesis.

"Honey Bunny" opens the proceedings with a beachy bounce, as Owens (singing in a crystalline coo reminiscent of Starflyer 59's Jason Martin) bemoans his common fate with, of course, girls: "They don't like my bony body / They don't like my dirty hair." If that song feels like a sunny drive along the coast, things rev up and veer close to the edge quickly -- the springy punk of "Alex," the windmill metal of "Die." By mid-album, we're in a beautifully arranged funk, going all Floyd on "My Ma" and deeply twisted on the stalker ballad "Vomit." If this all sounds pretty self-indulgent, it certainly is. It's also highly accomplished and remarkably fluid.

New locals
The entertaining story of Chicago R&B singer Syleena Johnson continues on "Chapter V: Underrated" (Shanachie) [3<br />
stars], another record of deft stylistic universalism and impressive pop production. The daughter of local icon Syl Johnson, Syleena debuted a decade ago with an R. Kelly-written single and has collaborated with Kanye West, with whom she shares numerous award nominations. Her defensive posture on the title track of "Underrated" is understandable following her downshift from Jive and Sony to indie label Shanachie, but the rest of the album proves her boasts aren't hollow. The manic groove of "Fade Away," the acoustic balladry of "Angry Girl," the pendulous soul of "Little Things" -- this is strong stuff, deserving of more credit and higher rating.

I don't say this often: Ramsey Lewis's new album is worth a listen. "Ramsey, Taking Another Look," the smooth Chicago jazzman's 80th album (!), is billed to Ramsey Lewis & His Electric Band (Hidden Beach) [2<br />
and a half stars], the result of a Tokyo gig that requested an electric band and an agent that suggested he use the opportunity to revisit his 1974 gold album "Sun Goddess." The quintet's eventual recording accomplishes more than merely rehashing Lewis' mildly funky moment, adding new tracks ("To Know Her Is to Love Her" swings ever so lightly with real finesse) to lively revisitations (the strings make the otherwise tender "Betcha by Golly, Wow!" elevator-ready, but bassist Joshua Ramos minbly revives "Jungle Strut").

Happy anniversary
Nirvana, "Nevermind" (Universal) [4<br />
stars] -- By the mid-'90s, this writer felt neither stupid nor contagious and was co-authoring a book about the lounge music revival. So I'm probably not the critic to toss a thousand more words into the cybersphere about the impact of Nirvana's milestone record. Suffice to say, the four-CD, 20th-anniversary reissue sufficiently fetishizes the memory of this era-defining album. There's a requisite truckload of extra material -- demos, B-sides, live recordings -- the most interesting of which are the original Butch Vig mixes, all of them muddy and "Bleach"-y and way more punk than the slicked-up commercial version that sold 30 million copies. What coulda been.

Matthew Sweet's power pop masterpiece "Girlfriend" also gets the 20th anniversary reissue treatment this fall, and Sweet is touring the album (playing the Bottom Lounge two nights, Oct. 13-14!). Meanwhile, he's got a new set, "Modern Art" (Missing Piece) [3<br />
stars] that's knotty with Beatle-Byrdsy psychedelics and sweet guitar-drenched hooks. Fun fact: Wild Flag's Carrie Brownstein is not the only star of IFC's "Portlandia" to rock out; Fred Armisen plays drums on one song ("Ivory Tower") on Sweet's new record.

Various Artists, Soundtrack to "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" (Lost Highway) [3<br />
and a half stars] -- Half the age of "Nevermind," this bluegrass-revival soundtrack to one of the Coen brothers' most beloved films still ranks as one of the best-selling albums of all time. This 10th-anniversary reissue adds a second disc of "bona fide rarities," including different takes on "I'll Fly Away," "Big Rock Candy Mountain" and "In the Jailhouse Now."

The return of the Ben Folds Five
Modern pianoman Ben Folds recently announced a reunion with Robert Sledge and Darren Jessee in his ironically named trio, the Ben Folds Five. It's timed to an upcoming best-of set, "With The Best Imitation of Myself: A Retrospective," due Oct. 11. The anthology includes some new recordings, including "House" (hear it here). Folds is back on NBC's a cappella talent show "The Sing-Off" this fall as a celebrity judge.

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This page contains a single entry by Thomas Conner published on September 23, 2011 9:00 AM.

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