KARL HENDRICKS ROCK BAND 'THE WORLD SAYS' (SURPLUS ANXIETY)
I knew this was going to be awesome when I turned the CD over and saw a track sitting there at the end with the running time of 11:47. It was hard not to just jump right to it.
But I resisted. Better to start at the beginning.
If you don't know Karl Hendricks by now, it's not too late to get on board. The Pittsburgh-based rocker has kept a pretty low profile since releasing "The Jerks Win Again" four years ago on Merge.
Now he returns with vigor and volume blissfully intact on "The World Says," an indie-rock guitar record that restores one's faith in indie-rock guitar records. The dueling instruments of Hendricks and Alexei Plotnicov are sublime -- sizzling and snarling with the big fat tones of guitar gods Neil Young and J. Mascis.
There isn't a single song here that doesn't explode into some glorious Dino Jr.- or Crazy Horse-style jam (with bassist Corey Layman and drummer Jake Leger), even during the tight three minutes of "Mediocre Advice."
More than a mere guitar hero, though, Hendricks is a singer with a wonderful sense of melody and a world-weary lyricist with a subtle hand. The eight-minute leadoff track, "I'm Not Crying, Karl," finds him encountering his friends' tears, whether sniffing through "E.T." as kids or reflecting on real-life miseries. He runs into a guy named Frank who tells him he sees dotted lines across his wrists, and says, "You stare so hard at your dreams they turn into blank walls/the compromises you settle for leave you shocked and appalled." The walls of frenzied guitars are well-earned after that.
Hendricks cleverly digs below the layers of communication on "Irony Fails Me" ("I count on the world to be [messed] up/It surprises me sometimes") and probes the nature of discontent on "Banned for Life ("Spend so much time/trying to fill a hole that you can't find"). "The Last Uncompromising Hardcore Band" is a sludge-fest that rolls the credits on angry rock, as Hendrix, watching with indifference, sings "passion just seems silly anymore."
Now, to the 11:47. The song is "California in October." Hendricks is staring over the ocean cliffs, pondering life, death, breath and how "every day's another stupid miracle." Then the scene cuts to Pittsburgh where gun shots ring out in an alley, "deep in the morning," and all you can do is "breathe in ... breathe out." Before and after, Karl and Alexei shred and shred some more, in the manner of Built to Spill attacking "Cowgirl in the Sand."
It might be absurd to call this one of the best-sounding guitar records in years, but it wouldn't be a lie.
-- Scott Mervis,
Post-Gazette pop music critic
PATTI SMITH 'TWELVE' (COLUMBIA)
On the heels of her Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, the best thing from Patti Smith would have been an album of bold new material, a statement of her vitality at 60.
Hear song excerpts from Patti Smith's new CD of cover songs, "Twelve":
Further down on the list of best artistic moves is this collection of 12 covers of mostly well-trodden songs.
Smith's voice is as breathy and shamanistic as ever, but other than topping the songs with a pleasantly idiosyncratic vocal, there isn't much in terms of reinterpretation other than slowing the tempos a bit and adding touches of color, mostly courtesy of guitarist Lenny Kaye.
Her versions of songs like "Helpless," "White Rabbit" and "Soul Kitchen" might send you reaching back for the superior originals. She actually strips most of the emotion from Dylan's "Changing of the Guards" and most of the groove from Paul Simon's "The Boy in the Bubble." The closest she gets to a spitting rocker is "Gimme Shelter," which won't replace the Stones version.
But there are keepers. The slow-grinding "Are You Experienced?" suits her spoken-word style. "Smells Like Teen Spirit," a song that's been reshaped before, turns Southern Gothic with mandolins, banjos and a witchy vocal.
For the finale, free Coolio and Weird Al from your mind and allow Smith to inhabit Stevie Wonder's "Pastime Paradise." It sounds as if it came right off of "Horses," Smith chanting over tense piano line "let's start living for the future."
-- Scott Mervis