This Week’s Best Albums: June 12, 2012

This Week's Best Albums: June 12, 2012

Each week, editor-in-chief Chris Force and music editor Scott Morrow choose ALARM’s favorite new releases for This Week’s Best Albums, an eclectic set of reviews presenting exceptional music.

Giant Giant Sand: Tucson (Fire)


Every writer of dusty Western laments has a few items on his or her bucket list. If you are Howe Gelb, of the long-running Arizona-based Giant Sand, recording an expansive country-rock opera was on it. Or perhaps, after nearly 30 years of making records, it was the only thing left to do?

Gelb, who has settled on a band of well-versed-in-Americana Danes after seeing one his previous casts of musicians depart to a career as Calexico, widens the line-up on Tucson, welcoming a string section, brass, and more Tucson-area musicians into the fold. This is mutant country western where pedal steel and a Nashville shuffle on the snare maintain a trad feel, while everything else is more than slightly tweaked.

The name of this expanded version of Giant Sand refers to the expanded line-up that graces the fully fleshed-out recordings, but it should refer to the ambition of this massive collection of tunes, which ranges from Gelb’s trippy, sun-baked musings to perfectly honed takes on vintage styles. The opera loosely tells the tale of a man leaving his hometown and finding trouble and love on the Western trails. It’s just an excuse for Gelb to cast some magic over shuffling drums, C&W guitar and strings, and jazzy piano.

But the narrative threaded through the collection of tunes never calls much attention to itself. It does, however, feature bit parts played well by the likes of smokey chanteuse Lonna Kelley, who proves a great foil to the forlorn-sounding Gelb, and pedal-steel maven Maggie Björklund, whose solo release last year was another star-studded affair.

- Text by John Dugan. Read the full review here.

Mucca Pazza: Safety Fifth (Electric Cowbell)

"Boss Taurus"

“Circus punk” marching band Mucca Pazza is one of Chicago’s best-kept secrets. Well, that isn’t actually true — the band’s 30-plus members aren’t great at hiding themselves. They play for free in Logan Square. They’re fixtures at Tour de Fat. They leave the stage during live shows to blast the audience from the floor — and the balcony if there is one. At any given moment, they might turn up in an Andrew Bird video or on the corner outside your apartment.

Led by composer Mark Messing, who here is a sousaphone-playing, megaphone-wielding maestro whose graying muttonchops have no rivals in our modern age, Mucca Pazza mashes up marching-band brass with amplified instruments like guitar and violin and theatrical skits led by a co-ed team of cheerleaders. On Safety Fifth, the band’s third recording, the compositions are complex enough to satisfy the musically learned, while avoiding the sorts of intricacies that would undermine its ability to bring it. These are pep-band tunes you head-bang to.

Stylistically, Safety Fifth’s range is wide. “Sexy Bull” meshes surf rock with Balkan horn riffs. “Tube Sock Tango” does a Latin thing. The only problem is that it can feel like the recording of a Broadway musical you haven’t seen. You know you’re missing something important. Those horns just don’t blister through ear buds; the recommended way to hear this record is to see the group play it live.

- Text by Timothy A. Schuler. Read the full review here.

B. Dolan: House of Bees Vol. 2 (Strange Famous)

"Still Here"

In 2005, indie rapper / poet B. Dolan, with a self-released full-length under his belt, hooked up with Strange Famous Records after gaining notoriety among New York City's slam-poetry scene. His first record, The Failure, was re-released in 2008 through his new independent home with the welcome addition of such names as Sole and label head / fellow Epic Beard Man Sage Francis. Since then, he has pushed deep into foreboding hip hop and sociopolitical commentary on another full-length as well as a mixtape titled House of Bees.

This year, Dolan wants you to know he's "still here" as he releases a collection of songs borne out of and after the death of his father in 2010. And though much of these songs are influenced by his father's passing, Dolan hasn't ditched his political side. One of the tapes' standout tracks is a remake of NWA’s gem, aptly retitled "Film the Police," featuring a slew of guests that include Sage Francis, Toki Wright, Jasiri X, and Buddy Peace.

Dolan turns inward on several tracks, including "Still Here" and the somber "Feel So Different." On the former, which samples Grails’ "Reincarnation Blues," the rapper defies both death and obscurity, shouting to his listeners that "you can kill the man but never the idea." The latter track, which begins with a haunting sample of his father's voicemail, is a raw, heart-wrenching glimpse into the rapper's emotional state following his father's passing.

- Meaghann Korbel

Honorable Mentions:

2econd Class Citizen: The Small Minority (Equinox / Fake Four)

The Bouncing Souls: Comet (Chunksaah)

Green Carpeted Stairs: s/t (Fake Four)

The Invisible: Rispah (Ninja Tune)

Kandodo: s/t (Thrill Jockey)

Metric: Synthetica (MMI / Mom + Pop)

Nouela: Chants (The Control Group)

Redgrave: National Act EP (Lovitt)

Ryat: Totem (Brainfeeder)

Scott Kelly, Steve Von Till & Wino: Songs of Townes Van Zandt (Neurot)

Volcano!: Piñata (Leaf)

Emily Jane White: Ode to Sentience (Antenna Farm)