The Triangle's music community continues its especially strong, fertile year. More reviews from Megafaun, Bon Iver, Jeff Crawford, Little Brother, 9th Wonder, Alina Simone and Schooner are coming soon. For now, we've started a new feature called Album of the Month. By visiting our Web site, you'll be able to stream all of Where's the Freedom?, the debut album from Adam Thorn and the Top Buttons.
Adam Thorn and the Top Buttons
Where's the Freedom?
(Ernest Jenning Record Co.)
"Seems like we're trying to relive the past," offers Greensboro's (soon to be Carrboro's) Adam Thorn about halfway through his debut, Where's the Freedom? Is that a mission statement or a throwaway line? After all, when you title a song "The Kids Are All Wrong" and employ guitars that kerrang merrily while bookending a record with soul covers, you're going to get assigned the post-post-mod tag.
There's plenty of not-quite-as-old-fashioned post-punk guitar rock, too. (Mr. Weller, say howdy to Mr. Malkmus.) You get your dose of postmodernism when Thorn detaches himself to comment on his "growing up is getting old" pun during the album's absolutely monumental title track. Elsewhere, "Don't Want" echoes Nick Lowe's "Music for Money," and when Thorn sings the words "get happy" in "Anynow, Anythere, Anyday," you're gonna think Elvis, the Attractions and their toast to Stax. Call this post-Stiff.
OK, enough. Here's some audience advice: Toss that pile of post-whatever to the wind, and go along for Thorn's ride here, one that's frequently exhilarating and, more importantly, never once boring. Don't waste time trying to categorize a song like "Made for Woman," which starts off all doo-woppy before turning into a mid-period Old 97's primed shuffle. Instead, bask in the kind of demented brilliance that can conjure the triple rhyme "The soft serve is swirled/ The Twizzlers are twirled/ That flag has been unfurled" and back it with Tommygun guitar, as Thorn and company do on "Slap! Slap!" And then congratulate them on bringing the exclamation mark back into rock.
As for those two soul covers, the album-closing "People Get Ready" is so sincere that you want to give the whole band a hug. And when their ragged-but-Real Kids take on "Expressway to Your Heart" hits full thump in the chorus, only those who wear their top buttons fastened (without fashion) will be able to avoid shaking something. Relive and let live. —Rick Cornell
Steep Canyon Rangers
Lovin' Pretty Women
On Lovin' Pretty Women, their fourth and most proficient album to date, the Chapel Hill-bred, Asheville-based Steep Canyon Rangers remain obsessed with the apparent simplicity of a past that precedes and, in large part, defines them. Take the vintage atmosphere of their album cover, a chromatic sketch of a woman imprinted onto crinkled paper. The Rangers have always formed this type of symbiotic relationship with their roots, taking cues from the greats and returning them, stirred. They dress in dark suits and simple colored shirts, and their stage movement (a trade-up or step-in, step-out movement) is carefully patterned on tradition. Still, the symbiosis is mutualistic: While the Rangers pay homage to their past, they're never cloistered by the semaphore of nostalgia. Rather, they provide a charismatic reinterpretation of that well-learned history.
Never before has the Rangers' artful recreation been more articulate and effective than through Lovin' Pretty Women's 14 tracks. The Rangers play it straight and simple, working from the confines of the laboring man's lexicon. Banjo picker and resident baritone Graham Sharp writes straight experience into his songs, his blue-collar laments speaking honest and open. Album opener "Ramblin' Man" follows a man who longs for the thrill of the open road, while "Lovin' Pretty Women" forms a flirtatious call for men bored by loving one woman. "Pick up the Blues" and "Desperate Blue" work from the themes of their heart-broken titles.
But it's when Sharp languishes deep in direct connections with the past that the Rangers reach full stride: "Go Down Moses" gets the full country-gospel treatment and sounds like an antebellum treasure, while "Cumberland Moon" crackles and reels in the spirit of an old Smoky Mountain ballad. If you like your roots to breathe new air, Lovin' Pretty Women comes recommended. —Kathy Justice
Our Thin Mercy of Error
"Raleigh," the longest track on Chapel Hill sound artist Jeff Rehnlund's Our Thin Mercy of Error, finds a stranger in our familiar lands: First, we hear Rehnlund at a Capital City diner, ordering coffee while a woman talks on a cell phone about health problems and tough years. A small girl explains a television commercial before a man tells Rehnlund what happens around Moore Square Park. An organizer for a youth program joins the field recording midstream, offering Rehnlund three Kurt Vonnegut books for a $5 donation. But Rehnlund's just given all of his money to his panhandling tour guide, and he doesn't know what to say when the guy asks him where to find potential benefactors: "I'm not from around here." Exactly.
It's that ethos that sums up what's best about Rehnlund's promising, 134-piece pressing of his debut for the Gainesville CD-R label Hymns. He approaches the discovery of sounds with experimental exuberance, sliding his tape player across a table on "Raleigh" like a director cutting between scenes and finding an unintended meaning, or creating a flitting collage of boiling pots, radio receivers, cartoon music and film strips on fantastic opener "160 India St." The combination of his sounds—alternately rhythmic, distended and droning, or highly randomized—glows with naiveté, or at least the sense that Rehnlund hasn't chosen them for didactic or theoretical reasons: He's chosen these sounds, simply and pragmatically, because they sound good.
That's not to say that Error is without its own ideas or sense of logic. On the contrary, early album highlight "mera" and closing track "Bowls" work as technical and timbral inverses, the sounds of the former shifted up until they pierce through the warm analogue clicks that Rehnlund uses as one of his primary instruments. The other rolls its high, warm tones into the hiss, gently feeding back in soothing circles of sound. This isn't new ground, but it's a legacy Rehnlund works well, nevertheless. —Grayson Currin
Discount Store EP
(Urban Myth Recording Collective/ Firefly Music)
Last December, Raleigh pop singer/songwriter Dan Bryk released Christmas Record to tide fans over until the release of his Pop Psychology LP, allegedly due this year. There's still no sign of what's becoming Bryk's Chinese Democracy, but there is Discount Store, another tide-over EP. Centered around two versions of Pop Psychology track "Discount Store" and featuring a handful of non-album tracks from the same recording sessions, Discount Store displays the same blend of acerbic wit, earnest banality and soaring melodicism that made his 2000 LP, Lover's Leap, a bona fide cult classic.
The title track's gleaming synth lead is offset by tiny chimes and alternately gliding and stabbing electric guitar. It's a working-man's lament that addresses Bryk's travails in the record industry, naming names like a Michael Moore movie. The record label staff has central air and health care. Meanwhile, Bryk is shopping secondhand and trudging up two flights of stairs every day: "And it's really hot this summer!" Yet, as always, Bryk's sunny pop accoutrements and deadpan delivery keep self-aggrandizement at bay. When he sings, "The world's a great big awful place, and frequently unfair," it's more recital of natural law than melodrama.
Bryk's talent for stating the obvious informs the piano-driven, mid-tempo rocker "Normal," which understates, "I'm not the normalest guy in town." A lambent, slow-burning cover of Furniture's "I Miss You" gives Bryk's voice some welcome space on this usually lush EP, and its chilly anomie suits him well. Only "Summer Heroine," with its unmitigated sentiment and melodic murk, disappoints. Overall, though, Discount Store is another tempting teaser from one of the most talented, not-normalest singers in the Triangle. —Brian Howe
ZEGG is a self-sustained ecovillage founded in 1991 outside of Berlin and comprised of 80 adults and children. The Belzig, Germany community's name is an acronym for Zentrum für Experimentelle GesellschaftsGestaltung. Translated, ZEGG means "Center for Experimental Culture Design." At ZEGG, the community actively questions the societal norms of ecology, economy and humanity.
Raleigh's ZEGG, a collection of five well trained musicians whose name stands for "Zero Excuses Get Groovin," seeks to provide pleasure for its members, audience and the occasional drunken collegiate passersby. They're a natural progression in the timeline of groove and jam, applying a tasteful pop gloss to an eclectic, dexterous sound. The guitar solos are here, as are the bass, drum and organ solos. But, as we've seen with Umphrey's McGee, Galactic and String Cheese Incident, funk, fusion and bluegrass ooze into the mix. It's a sensibility ZEGG wears well on their debut, The Ride, each instrument shining through—and laying back—when necessary. The nine tracks are solid, never relying on just a single theme or framework.
But ZEGG's intense instrumental anthems mean that, for better or worse, The Ride has little chance of success outside of Guitar Center employees and the fraternal order of college dudes. It's a good album, but it never stands out enough to grab a non-jam ear. Still, if this is your stuff, ZEGG's worth finding. —Rich Ivey