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LISTEN: CAMERA OBSCURA, “Let’s Get Out Of This Country”(Merge Records, $13.99)(website:

Camera Obscura’s latest album explodes out of the stereo with power pop that will have you reeling with delight. “Let’s Get Out Of This Country” nails the lush, cinematic qualities of Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” as the Scottish band take a bright, musical romp down pop memory lane. Brimming with sharp guitars, rolling organ, booming drums and rich horn arrangements, the disc is a result of Camera Obscura’s first time recording in a proper full-on studio.

This cacophony of sound easily embraces the charmingly, sweet-voiced Tracyanne Campbell who fronts the band. The disc kicks off with the excellently titled, tour-de-force, “Lloyd, I’m Ready To Be Heartbroken,” a rollicking ode from a girl who’s prepared for the inevitable. The 60’s soul-inspired track, “If Looks Could Kill,” sounds as if the entire group is emanating from a much-listened-to piece of vinyl. On “Tears For Affairs,” Beach Boys-like vocals answer back Campbell’s chorus of being on the receiving end of a break up.

Vintage. Throwback. Whatever the term, Camera Obscura makes the most of their musical history lesson. More importantly, the genius of Camera Obscura is like that of their fellow countrymen Belle and Sebastian. While often dismissed as “twee” for their simple, childlike melodies, both bands penetrate the joyous confections they create with lyrical forethought that outsmarts the majority of today’s bands. What other group can you think of that would title a country-tinged, break up song “Dory Previn,” the American singer-songwriter who penned the tunes on the 1968 cult classic “Valley of the Dolls” and suffered a subsequent mental breakdown?

JAMES LUTHER DICKINSON, “Jungle Jim and The Voodoo Tiger” (Memphis International Records, $16.98)(website:

“The jukebox of my mind” is how Jim Dickinson describes his new album, “Jungle Jim and The Voodoo Tiger”, a collection of Delta blues, Memphis soul and rock and roll tunes he’s crossed paths with over his lifetime. And what a lifetime it’s been! Over the past 40 years, Dickinson has done session work for The Rolling Stones and Aretha Franklin and produced albums for Big Star, The Replacements and North Mississippi Allstars, the band that includes his two sons Luther and Cody. This doesn’t even begin to cover all of the music he’s had a hand in, but explains why “Jungle Jim…” is only his third studio effort.

Dickinson’s thick, gravelly voice and rollicking piano effortlessly roll out nearly a dozen tracks with a band (that includes his sons and guitarist Alvin Youngblood Hart) worthy of any roadhouse. Along with a little boogie woogie (“Hadacol Boogie”) and a beautiful lament of days gone by (“Somewhere Down The Road”), Dickinson cements his place firmly in the continuum of American music. Even Bob Dylan thinks so. In his autobiography “Chronicles Volume One”, Dylan writes with admiration of Dickinson and how it would have been good to have him in the studio on his 1989 recording “Oh Mercy”. “(Dickinson) started out playing the same time as me, in about ‘57 or ‘58, listened to the same things and could play and sing pretty well. We were from opposite ends of the Mississippi River. Back then, rock and roll was hated and resented, and folk music even more so, and Dickinson stepped to the front in both. His influences were jug band and early rock-and-roll bebop, same as mine.”

PHOENIX, “It’s Never Been Like That” (Astralwerks, $12.97)( website:

Effortless New Wave wrapped in European cool. That’s what the French band Phoenix offers up on “It’s Never Been Like That”, an album packed tight with ten infectious pop tunes. Lead singer Thomas Mars sings (in English) with a smooth, direct intimacy about love and long distance phone calls, making the listener feel as if they’re the object of his heart’s desire. But alas ladies, he’s taken. Mars is the paramour of film director Sofia Coppola (the two are expecting a baby later this year), a woman whose taste in music is unrivaled amongst those living in Hipsterville. She included a Phoenix song in her 2003 film “Lost In Translation” and employed the quartet again for her forthcoming biopic “Marie Antoinette”.

Even with such an impressive resume, Phoenix never comes across as pretentious or inaccessible. They’re just four Parisian boys casually exuding intellectual cool. The bouncy cut “Rally” finds Mars asking a girl to meet up with him. Not at a loud, crowded rock concert or some dive bar. Nope. He wants to hook up at a rally, a gathering of like-minded individuals aiming to make social change. Talented and politically mindful!?!

All of “It’s Never Been Like That” was fashioned with just two guitars, bass, drums and a 4-month deadline. Stripping down to such bare basics is rare for a band whose career is in its 8th year and has three albums under its collective belt. But music is as much about restraint as it is about indulging one’s production ego. The French foursome apparently entered the studio without a single note written and exited with a simple masterpiece.

SONIC YOUTH, “RATHER RIPPED” (Geffen, $13.95)( website:

There’s nothing cooler than discovering Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon share your TV viewing habits. The couple and their pre-teen daughter Coco, watch “Gilmore Girls”! The hippest family on the planet even appeared on the show’s season finale, performing the song “What a Waste” from Sonic Youth’s new release, “Rather Ripped”. (How sweet was it to see Gordon pogoing on prime time!?!) The “Tuesday at 8 pm” slot makes sense since “Rather Ripped” is the band’s most accessible album to date.

Bright, clear guitars drive alongside an endless batch of catchy hooks and choruses. Fear not…Sonic Youth never sets aside its trademark noise entirely. When Moore and Lee Ranaldo do go at it with guitars blazing on tracks like “Sleepin’ Around” and “Jams Run Free,” the feedback frenzy is intense but brief, returning the players back safely to finish the songs at hand. Gordon is in fine vocal form on the rock gems “Reena” and “Turquoise Boy,” as is Ranaldo on his singable ditty “Rats”, a dark, Joy Division-like ode to vermin and deceitful people. Not one to pry or even attempt to decipher Sonic Youth’s art/punk, cryptic lyrics, infidelity and downward-spiraling relationships seem to be an occurring theme. Whatever’s behind the words (and who’s to say there is?), the important thing is that this album gloriously carries Sonic Youth in to its 25th year of producing engaging and progressive music.

THE WRECKERS, “Stand Still, Look Pretty” (Warner Nashville/Maverick, $18.98)( website:

“You want to do WHAT!?!” is the reaction I would bet money on that Maverick Records had, when its Top 40, multi-Grammy winner Michelle Branch declared she was shelving her solo, money-making career to join forces with her best friend to record a…gasp!… country record. Branch and her co-Wrecker, Jessica Harp, knew they had the goods to craft what is an admirable country debut. (Harp herself was so certain of success she walked away from her own Nashville record deal when Branch phoned with a “now or never” opportunity to join musical forces.) Matching lilting vocals and harmonizing with a precision usually resigned to siblings, The Wreckers evoke country music akin to the finest singer/songwriter of today, Patty Griffin. The pair nail the defiance and heartfelt depth of Griffin when they cover her song “One More Girl,” singing “do you know what it means to be/one more girl on the stage/just one more ass that got/stuffed in some jeans.”

Branch and Harp wisely chose producers John Levanthal (Rosanne Cash, Shawn Colvin), John Shanks (Sheryl Crow, Pink) and Paul Worley (Marina McBride, Pam Tillis) to stretch their sound from the Crowded House-like pop on “Way Back Home” to the twang-filled tale of hard-livin’ cowgirls on the disc’s final cut, “Crazy People.” The partners-in-song gleefully croon about being magnets for losers and finding simple solutions to the predicaments they’re in: “He left a reminder/With nine months to go/That’s why I killed his wife/And wrecked up his home.” The track ends with the two giggling like they just got away with something. And I think they did.

READ: “EVERYTHING I’M CRACKED UP TO BE” by JEN TRYNIN (Harcourt, $23.00 hardcover/$10.78 paperback)(website:

Ever wonder what it would be like to be the object of the music industry’s desire? To be deemed the “it” musician of the moment, with record label executives from coast to coast wining and dining you to sign on their dotted line? Wonder no more thanks to Jen Trynin’s hilariously revealing memoir, “Everything I’m Cracked Up To Be.” The Boston-based singer/songwriter recounts in detail the wild ride she went on in 1994, when she was the center of a major label bidding war.

After years of slumming in the ghetto of open mic nights and coffee house gigs, Trynin decides to go for the brass ring of “making it” by releasing a record on her own label. Slowly her work gathers momentum on college radio, critics write favorable reviews and before she knows it, WHAM!, the entire music industry is at her door, ready to knock it down. The adulation is only matched by Trynin’s inherent insecurities about making the right decisions. What label to sign with? Can she fit the “rock star” role without selling out? How to include her band mates on the ride when all attention is on her?

She writes with great honesty of choices made that turn out to be less than favorable for her career; passing on the Lilith Fair and nixing all-girl opening acts to avoid the “chick singers with acoustic guitars” box. She even writes of the struggle to remain faithful to her boyfriend while on tour. What? You think only guys with guitars wrestle with monogamy? “Everything I’m Cracked Up To Be” is a cautionary tale of being labeled the “next big thing” and surviving the insanity of a business with your head and heart intact. / Issue 60 - September 2018
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