Gravenhurst “The Western Lands” (Warp)

Certain very specific kinds of records take only a few notes to draw me in. Mostly they are serious sounding, minimal, and impeccably produced records that tend to have a rather subtle groove built into an almost goth folk sensibility. Gravenhurst, the Bristol England band, is a kind of like Red House Painters on Joy Division, lead by the sweet but hypnotic vocals of Nick Talbot who mixes a kind of darkness with something that oddly optimistic. This is the kind of hidden gem that tends to pop up occasionally on labels like Sub Pop or Matador, but this time was released oddly on the genre defining ambient electronic label Warp.

A bit like the short lived American band Spain, “The Western Lands” alternates between slow methodical jaunts and almost pop songs like “Trust” to grittier more guitar driven instrummental moments. Most of the magic here lies in the layered guitar work that injects everything from almost spaghetti western soundtrack strumming to spacey restrained almost winter beach music to highland sounding guitar anthems. This record is about moods and the specific geographic places that inspire them. This is a very big, very small record, and one of the best I have heard this year.

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Okkervil River – The Stage Names (Jagjaguwar)

Far too few people will ever hear this record, I know it. This is Americana balladry in its most modern finery, sung with the earnestness of a Springsteen or Tweedy, but thinner slightly warbling more like Bright Eyes, with music as authentic and warm as “The Last Waltz.”

On “The Stage Names,” the Texas band’s third critically acclaimed album, the band has peppered their onetime sparse flavor of alt-country with billowing strings and piano on tracks like “A Girl In Port,” more upbeat and danceable tracks like “A Hand to Take Hold of the Scene” that feel like they could be opening tracks on the latest record from Spoon, and precious orchestral ditties like “Savannah Smiles” cut from the same clothe as Magnetic Fields or The Ladybug Transistor.

Don’t get me wrong, this record isn’t so much derivative as it is conscious of all the great under-appreciated music that has informed it. This is a minor masterpiece, accessible yet specific enough to charm indiephiles and Coldplay fans alike.

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Russ Meyer Collection (DVD)

It has been almost 15 years now – the moment I got turned on to the raucus music of Mudhoney and then subsequently stumbled into “Kim’s Video” in 1993 to rent and watch a tattered copy of “Mudhoney” that I have been waiting for this collection to emerge. Well not exactly, because at the time DVDs weren’t in existence and I didn’t yet realize how consistently weird, sexy and oddly funny all of Meyer’s film would be, but I did know I was determined to see every film he had ever made. This collection consists of 18 Meyer classics, all featuring ridiculously buxom babes thrust into variety of strange and limp but humous plotlines.

Meyer, the one-time early Playboy photographer, was one of the most important figures in early low budget American filmmaking ranking up there with Roger Corman. On the surface it is easy to watch any of his “Vixen” films and dismiss them as rather dated soft core exploitation films, which they are, but that is only one layer of a much weirder fusion of comedy and boobs and violence that make up this extraordinary collection. Films like the gritty black and white “Mudhoney” and “Faster Pussy Cat Kill Kill” are strange, violent and so over the top that you quickly begin to lose track of which genre they belong to entirely. While films like “Beneath The Valley of the Ultra Vixens” and “Lorna” and others are feel more like pornos but narrated in the same gosh-golly tone as a sixth grade science film.

To understand and appreciate Meyer is hurl yourself completely unique world. This is a cinematic plane that looks like something old and cheap on the surface, but is really the bizarre work of a master. Meyer wrote, directed, and edited most of these films and every frame is stamped with his off-kilter signature. I wil lbe hard pressed to find a set od CDs that I was happier to find than these.

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Caribou “Andorra” (Merge)

I’m a sucker for 60’s laced indie psychedalia. From the fragile pop of England’s The Clientele to the trippy guitar heroism Sweden’s of Dungen, the sense of time and place elicited by this sort of well executed genre bending is more powerful than that of almost any other era. Enter Caribou, a one band whose extraordinary second effort “Andorra” accessorizes the sing song ballad template from bands like Love, The Byrds and Brian Wilson, with a warm and well integrated dose of pseudo electronic.

“Andorra” breezes along adapting curiously familiar retro stylings into an organic and complete full album oriented experience. Although the songs are all individually compelling “Eli” being my favorite, mixing vocal melody with joyous sprinklings of flute, string and keys, this is not a series of songs meant to be downloaded and listened in isolation, but more a record to settle into. The Summer of Love is alive and well, here. This is a good thing.

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