It might seem easy to dismiss Tilly and the Wall as a novelty act if you haven’t been lucky enough to hear—or see—the Omaha-based group. The band is made up of vocalists Neely Jenkins and Kianna Alarid, guitarist/vocalist Derek Pressnall and keyboardist Nick White, as well as Jamie Pressnall, who provides the potential novelty of percussion by tapdancing. But Tilly and the Wall proves again, with its third release, O, that it’s no gimmick. What they do works—and works well. The result is a cohesive, pop-infused collection of songs that each have their own distinctive sound, yet flow seamlessly from track to track.
The opening “Tall Tall Grass” features gentle acoustic strumming and the harmonies of Jenkins and Alarid. But the instant guitar feedback makes an entrance, it’s evident that Tilly and Wall is full of surprises. One minute, the vocals are channeling Le Tigre in quirky songs like the toe-tapping “Too Excited,” while the next there’s a hint of ABBA among the space-age sounds of “Falling Without Knowing.” With boy-girl, trade-off vocals, “Jumbler” seems like it could easily be part of a ’50s musical, but the following “Chandelier Lake” is equal parts folk song and ethereal journey through a meadow of tambourines, accordions and chirping birds.
“Pot Kettle Black” reaches anthem-like proportions, with hand-clapping and stomping, and a few elongated “s” sounds to denote the cattiness with which Jenkins and Alarid sing about gossip: “Talk that, talk that smack. Watch your, watch your back.” Appropriately enough, it was recorded in Jenkins’ old high school gym, with Jamie in the bleachers and the rest of the band on the floor.
And while “Dust Me Off” discusses depression-induced lethargy, it has an optimistic tone: “Remember to fight off the darkness that creeps in sometimes.” Who wouldn’t have an air of brightness when accompanied by a tap dancer? It would be great to rent Tilly and the Wall for singing-telegram type snippets of bad news, beautiful harmonies and some tapdancing softening phrases such as “You’re not getting a raise,” or “I’ve been seeing someone else.” But for Tilly and the Wall, the news is good: O is an ebullient record full of delightfully unexpected twists and unique soundscapes.
It’s hard to tell whether Black Diamond Heavies keyboardist and singer John Wesley Myers was born with a greasy spoon stuck in his throat or if his gruff vocals are just the result of many years spent trying to sing along to Tom Waits records. Either way the result is impressive. With just Myers’ own pounding on a Rhodes piano and that of his partner Van Campbell on a drum kit, the Black Diamond Heavies have taken Waits’ tipsy blues cadence and injected it with the kind of r-n-r vitriol the old guy doesn’t muster much.
For their second album, A Touch of Someone Else’s Class, the East Nashville duo travelled to Ohio to record with the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach at his Akron Analog Studio. If anyone knows something about making a two-piece sound bigger than it is, it would be Auerbach, but the choice of engineer was fortuitous in other ways as well. Joining the Heavies for one cut, “Bidin’ My Time,” was Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney’s uncle Ralph, longtime horn player for Waits, and his contribution gives the song a touch of late-night noir that can’t be gotten from just anyone. Still Auerbach’s work is one of the keys (no pun intended) to the record’s success. Cuts like the leadoff “Nutbush City Limits” and “Loose Yourself” are imbued with a floor-shaking sound, just enough low-end rumble and in-the-red saturation to make the record come alive.
Myers studies of the Waits catalog, Booker T and Muscle Shoals soul, and no doubt Nina Simone (the Heavies do a very worthy cover of her seminal “Sinnerman”) has paid off in spades. Touch is a gritty triumph, the kind of record that can’t be made without more than a little blood and sweat.
If Sufjan Stevens ever decides to step away from his plan to write 100 records about the rest stops of America, he can look forward to a promising future as a talent scout. So far his traveling band has been the farm team for Annie Clark, a.k.a. St. Vincent, and Shara Worden, a.k.a. My Brightest Diamond. After doing a stint as “cheerleading captain,” Worden branched out on her own to deliver her brand of Gothic pop to the masses. Her latest attempt is A Thousand Shark’s Teeth.
The style of My Brightest Diamond is in a very tricky place. With a healthy helping of strings and “exotic” instruments, it would be really easy to slide into the role of a lesser Lorena McKennitt or a bootleg Dead Can Dance, the choice for the 21st Century, velvet-clad theatre major. How Worden succeeds is that she keeps just the right amount of drama and humor without going overboard. Vocally there are hints of Antony Hegarty, Jeff Buckley, with touches of Sinead O’Connor and Björk in epic mode. And there’s such an icy precision to the record it seems like a weird fit to come out in the summer.
Worden very wisely mixes up the musical feel of the record. Overall it is a very mid-tempo and airy record, but there are some stylistic sidesteps, like the straight ahead rock touches of songs like “Inside A Boy,” the shuffling stutter beat of “Apples” and the marimba and waterphone backdrop of “Like A Sieve.” However, you can’t discount the other songs, which while more similar, still have a smart use of space and tension.
As a songwriter Worden leans toward the clever English major who figured out how to edit herself. Some of the songs are just this side of too precious, such as on “Bass Player,” where she drops “Bass player all alone/Makes a sound/Most wouldn’t call a symphony.” Then there’s also the song “If I Were Queen,” where she declares “If I were queen/ We’d be neighbors/I’d pick you up every morning/For donuts and tea.” Yet somehow there’s such a Judy Garland “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” spin on it that it’s somehow okay.
For many, Supreme Genius will serve as a proper introduction to the East-Indian born King Khan, known in certain circles as the world’s greatest (living) frontman. Along with his Shrines, the airtight, road-weathered, 10-piece “soul inferno” that backs him up, he’s been releasing party-starting long players in Europe (apparently he’s huge in Germany) since his debut, Smash Hits, landed in 2002. For American audiences, the über-hip Vice Records has compiled the best of the lot and packaged them as a jukebox of Khan showstoppers.
Anyone with a working knowledge of the initial Stax and Motown singles, vintage surf music, Santo & Johnny guitar weepers, blaxploitation soundtracks and ’60s freak-beat rave-ups should have fun spotting the influences. Khan is capable of channeling a lil’ bit of everything here. The Supreme Genius is a total romp through and through, bringing to mind artsy-soul survivors of the late ’90s like the Make-Up and Delta ’72, only here the homage and humor is layered on thick. The grooves are embedded with the sound of dusty vinyl; the horns swell as if they’re trying to fill a grand ballroom; the overworked amp tubes crackle at the prospect of another blazing number. Meanwhile Khan takes on the personae of the emcee, the pimp, the heartbroken, the voodoo shaman, the blessed preacher, the soul brother number one—and continually succeeds in leading the proceedings. He may not have the pipes of Otis Redding—his singing frequently reaches a screech similar to Ian Svenious—but the power he possesses behind a microphone is enough to fill the vacancy in his voice.
The jaded may question if its time for yet another rehashed soul revue, especially one as campy as King Khan and the Shrines. Normally I’d wonder the same thing, but songs like the sparkling “Welfare Bread” and the trippy stomp “I Wanna Be a Girl” (both pulled from last year’s excellent What Is?) are fortified with a textured mix of style and psych and with enough class that they’re hard to reject. If it weren’t for “Fool Like Me” and “Shiver Down My Spine,” the obligatory slow-jams, this could be the most solid party album of the summer. But then again without those cuts there would be no time to catch your breath and wipe the sweat from your brow.
Kevin J. Elliott
The greatest mythologies in music have to be unearthed, examined, and absorbed in order to be treasured and adored with the proper amount of passion. It took decades for people to come around to works of genius like Skip Spence’s Oar and Syd Barrett’s The Madcap Laughs, and the same will likely happen with the catalog Bloomington, Indiana’s Impossible Shapes have accumulated. Unassumingly, singer/songwriter Chris Barth has intimately weaved another buried gem of both pastoral and grotesque psychedelia that rarely sounds like it’s rising above a whisper, as if the band’s preference is to keep their secrets a secret that follows them to the grave. Even when they bristle under the guise of an average indie-rock group, evident in the Southern sway and bop of “Hey!” or the up-tempo Superchunkiness of “Our Secret Operation,” they tend to have reservations about revealing any sense of normalcy.
There’s an inherent quirk and instability to even the free-flowing folk that dots the album—“I Love Everyone of Your Daughters” is slinking and distant, filled with tiny scrawls of guitar needlepoint and baroque mood. “Infinity’s Lips,” a banjo-led melody light as honeysuckle-air, is the four-piece at their most simplistic. But still it’s underlined with a tinge of doom. Things aren’t always as they seem in the Impossible Shapes’ environs, trap doors and hidden staircases always within the architecture. The Impossible Shapes’ seventh album in 10 years is the kind of subtle lysergia that blots in pale shades, ducks into corners and keeps to itself. But within its folds, the album shows off a mysterious and majestic labyrinth of heady trails and colored smoke that could potentially reward for decades.
Kevin J. Elliott