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Aching across the century

March 17, 2009|Randy Lewis; Mikael Wood; August Brown

Marianne Faithfull

"Easy Come, Easy Go"


* * * *

On her latest full-length collection, Marianne Faithfull, the queen of torch songs for the damaged soul, reteams with producer Hal Willner for another beautifully haunting tour of a landscape littered with the detritus of shredded hearts.

"I sit in my chair, and filled with despair, there's no one could be so sad," she sings in a funereal reading of the Duke Ellington-Eddie DeLange-Irvine Mills lament "Solitude" that was a standard for Faithfull's predecessor in such existentially aching music, Billie Holiday. Willner creates an otherworldly setting blending sighing wah-wah guitar with sweetly sad clarinets, a gently plucked upright bass providing the only hint that there's a pulse still beating below the devastated surface.

The album is subtitled "12 Songs for Music Lovers," and they stretch across much of the 20th century, from the bordello blues of Bessie Smith's title tune (with its spectacular arrangement of piano, clarinet, trumpet and bass sax) forward to Neko Case's "Hold On, Hold On" and "Dear God Please Help Me" from another of her music soul mates, Morrissey. Rufus Wainwright turns up to help out with Espers' "Children of Stone," while Antony Hegarty is Faithfull's partner for what has to be the most melancholy version ever of Smokey Robinson's "Ooh Baby Baby."

This set is intriguingly bookended with songs from two of country music's greatest songwriters, opening with Dolly Parton's "Down From Dover," a tale of romantic betrayal, and ending with Merle Haggard's death-row classic "Sing Me Back Home." Keith Richards joins in on the latter, an appropriate guest spot for the woman whose gloriously ragged voice sounds like the battle-scarred Stones guitarist looks.

It's the perfect final note on which to end an album built on the premise that music can transcend what would seem to be the most insurmountable of life's travails.

-- Randy Lewis

Playtime with a musical oddball

Les Claypool

"Of Fungi and Foe"

(Prawn Song)

* * 1/2

"What would Sir George Martin do?" asks Les Claypool in a track from his new solo effort, "Of Fungi and Foe." Well, he probably wouldn't make an album like this one.

There's no doubting that the famed Beatles producer pushed the Fab Four into creative wilds they might not have explored on their own. Yet as musical oddballs go, Martin pales in comparison to Claypool, who's complemented a lengthy stint as the frontman of Primus with a bevy of side projects, including Oysterhead (alongside Trey Anastasio of Phish) and Colonel Claypool's Bucket of Bernie Brains (with Parliament-Funkadelic keyboardist Bernie Worrell).

Claypool's signature sound layers angular punk riffs over elastic funk grooves, but that's only a foundation; his music is really defined by its deadpan lounge-jazz trimmings and creepy redneck-country vocals.

The dozen tunes on "Of Fungi and Foe" grew out of soundtrack material Claypool was hired to write for the Nintendo game "Mushroom Men" and the independent film "Pig Hunt," though it's unlikely you'd suspect that if you didn't know it. In "Red State Girl," over a skeletal oom-pah beat, he describes a Sarah Palin admirer with "powder on and up in her nose," while "Ol' Rosco" charts the grim course of a drunk driver following his "lunchtime chug-a-lug."

Eugene Hütz of the great New York gypsy-punk group Gogol Bordello joins Claypool for the album's most energetic cut, "Bite Out of Life," which revs into a disco-fied folk-metal jam that could double as Rage Against the Machine covering the Gipsy Kings.

Talk about your magical mystery tours.

-- Mikael Wood

Reaching for the cosmos


"Crack the Skye"


* * *

Once a metal band has penned the tale of a Cyclops-Sasquatch (named Cysquatch, naturally), where else is there left to go topically? For the ambitious Atlanta band Mastodon, whose 2006 album "Blood Mountain" was one of the year's big genre-crossovers, the next move is to a place that Sun Ra, David Bowie and Lil Wayne have gone before them -- the mind-bending mysteries of the cosmos.

"Crack the Skye" is Mastodon's most involved album to date, relying on hyper-intricate guitar arrangements and production nuance in service of its freaky inter-dimensional mythology. There's all manner of wormhole travel, interplanetary necromancy and inscrutable subplots on Russian occultism here. But it's ably bolstered by the flurried riffs of "Divinations" and baroque dirges like "The Czar" and "The Last Baron."

Singer Brent Hinds' nimble cackle is in fine form, and though devotees of Mastodon's breakout "Leviathan" might find it a touch brooding, "Crack the Skye" is a headphone album for those commuting on the Nostromo of "Alien."

-- August Brown

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