This Week’s Best Albums: September 28, 2010

This Week's Best Albums

Powerglove: Saturday Morning ApocalypsePowerglove: Saturday Morning Apocalypse (E1 Music)

Named after the awkwardly constructed Nintendo device of the late 1980s, Powerglove is a power-metal quartet that combines the shredding, über-harmonized, finger-tapping insanity of a band like DragonForce with the kitschy nostalgia of video-game covers.

On the band’s first EP and LP, it tackled late-’80s and mid-’90s classics from Tetris, Mega Man, The Legend of Zelda, Castlevania, F-Zero, and assorted Final Fantasy games.  Now the group turns its video-game MO to the realm of Saturday-morning (and prime-time) cartoons for Saturday Morning Apocalypse, its first release on E1.

With maximum riffage and maniacal beats, lighthearted themes turn epic, sinister, or anywhere between.  Comic nerds whose formative years came in the ’90s will smile upon hearing the album opener, the theme to the X-Men cartoon series — which, after three minutes, segues into a classical-guitar breakdown before finishing with full force.

Themes from The Simpsons, The Flintstones, Pokémon, Inspector Gadget, and The Transformers each are remade with squealing pitch harmonics, chugging guitars, and rapid double-kick beats.  There’s a dark, powerful rendition of the Batman cartoon theme, with a glockenspiel providing a few complementary passages.  In the Batman theme — and throughout the disc — keyboards play a vital role, as killer programming accounts for the sweeping faux strings, “orchestra hits,” synth arpeggios, and general spookiness.

And though these selections primarily are from Saturday-morning cartoons, there are a few other treats as well, including a fantastic metal rendition of “This is Halloween” from The Nightmare Before Christmas.  The absolute highlight is the Winnie the Pooh song (“Heffalumps and Woozles”), taking the grandeur to another level with an interlude of harp, pizzicato strings, bells, and more.

As the teenage antagonist from the 1989 film The Wizard would say, “I love the Powerglove.  It’s so bad.”

Powerglove: “This is Halloween”

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Victoire: Cathedral City

Victoire: Cathedral City (New Amsterdam)

Formed in 2008, Victoire is an all-female electro-chamber quintet that was founded by composer Missy Mazzoli.  In just a few years, the classically trained group has issued an EP and landed a number of notable gigs, slowly building buzz around Brooklyn.

Cathedral City is Victoire’s proper debut, and it’s a striking album that marries emphatic string motifs to minimal yet clever accents of keyboards, clarinet, melodica, and rapturous vocals.

Other chamber ensembles have pushed boundaries in the 21st Century, but Victoire does so in a way that feels completely natural.  Digitized hi-hat beats, looped/glitched vocals, and touches of electric guitar (courtesy of The National‘s Bryce Dessner) subtly complement a harmonious blend of violin, double bass, and the aforementioned elements.

Epic classical-rock composer William Brittelle, bassist/composer Florent Ghys, and gifted soprano vocalist Mellissa Hughes also make appearances on Cathedral City, adding more character to an album that doesn’t lack it. Cathedral City is an exciting arrival.

Victoire: “Cathedral City”

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Aloe Blacc: Good ThingsAloe Blacc: Good Things (Stones Throw)

Starting his career as an MC in the hip-hop duo Emanon, Egbert Dawkins III — known as Aloe Blacc — transitioned to a solo soul singer early last decade.  The two careers overlapped for a stretch, but Dawkins began focusing on his solo career midway through the decade, following his 2003 debut EP with a 2006 full-length album, Shine Through.

Dawkins sang a lot on Shine Through, but he still offered a few raps to go with hip-hop production values, Latin sounds, and even a few pop vibes (like the Justin Timberlake-esque “Are You Ready?” and “Want Me”).  Good Things, his sophomore follow-up, focuses on his soulful and R&B elements — with a few funky twists — in an effort to create “positive social change” through good vibrations.

A lot of it feels as personal as on previous albums, but tracks such as “Life So Hard” tackle political topics like the cruel hand of capitalism.  A similar sentiment is expressed on album opener “I Need a Dollar,” a tune that has doubled as the theme for HBO’s How to Make It in America.

Thanks to production assistance from the in-house team at Truth & Soul Records, Good Things remains sonically eclectic, tabbing strings, a vibraphone, and more in addition to the usual soul instrumentation.  It doesn’t reach as far, stylistically, as Shine Through, but it refines Aloe Blacc’s approach while expanding his political influence.

Aloe Blacc: “You Make Me Smile”

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Greg Ward's Fitted Shards: South Side StoryGreg Ward’s Fitted Shards: South Side Story (19/8)

Jazz saxophonist Greg Ward has accomplished so much over the past decade that it’s hard to believe he’s still in his late 20s.  His list of musical cohorts is so long that there’s only time to mention a few big names — Hamid Drake, Jeff Parker, Von Freeman — and despite his relocation to New York, he’s back in Chicago, his previous residence, nearly every other week for one-off gigs.

Fitted Shards is one of Ward’s newest ensembles as a leader, and it features three other excellent young Chicagoans: bassist Jeff Greene (Blink.), keyboardist Rob Clearfield (Loom), and drummer Quin Kirchner (Nomo).

From the get-go, the quartet’s debut, South Side Story, is unconventional for an album that is thoroughly jazzy.  “Segue,” the opener, is built on a short bass repetition, providing latch-able ground for Ward’s dexterous runs before an unexpectedly dense wave of keyboards provides some oomph.

The rest of Ward’s compositions fall somewhere on the jazz spectrum, but each tune has its own feel and flair, including decidedly un-jazz elements like prog-ish synth accents on “All In” and distorted guitar backing on “Step Forward.”  Additionally, Clearfield’s talents are indispensable, as he brings Ward’s softer melodies to life.

Greg Ward’s Fitted Shards: “Step Forward”

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Honorable Mentions

Jason Adasiewicz: Sun Rooms (Delmark)

Rahim AlHaj: Little Earth (UR Music)

Bad Religion: The Dissent of Man (Epitaph)

Ben Folds & Nick Hornby: Lonely Avenue (Nonesuch)

Black Anvil: Triumvirate (Relapse)

Enslaved: Axioma Ethica Odini (Indie Recordings)

Floored By Four (Mike Watt, Nels Cline, Yuka Honda, Dougie Bowne): s/t (Chimera Music)

Adam Haworth Stephens: We Live on Cliffs (Saddle Creek)

Alan Moore: Unearthing (Lex)

Rudresh Mahanthappa & Bunky Green: Apex (Pi)

Three Mile Pilot: The Inevitable Past is the Future Forgotten (Temporary Residence)

Unearthly Trance: V (Relapse)

Pete Yorn: s/t (Vagrant)