Thursday, December 14, 2006
GOB IRON | Death Songs for the Living | Transmit Sound/Legacy
Gob Iron, which is Britspeak for “harmonica,” is the new side project of Jay Farrar (Son Volt, Uncle Tupelo) and Anders Parker (Varnaline). Recorded over two days in the fall of 2004, the album contains nine reconfigured folk songs and a new Farrar original set off by nine short instrumental interludes. Farrar’s mournful baritone and Parker’s high-lonesome tenor blend beautifully, particularly on the opening cut, a haunted cover of the Rev. J.M. Gates’ “Death’s Black Train” that somehow splits the difference between gospel and raga.
Although wrongheaded purists might sniff that the duo takes too many liberties with the source material, adding new verses and appropriating melodies and using all manner of anachronistic instrumentation, the project is paradoxically truer to the spirit of folk music than are strict re-creations. Folk music, after all, is an oral tradition, its songs passed on from generation to generation and adapted, like sturdy hand-me-downs, to the exigencies of the moment. So when Farrar takes the lyrics from an old miner’s ballad and grafts them onto the melody of “Paul and Silas in Jail,” or when Parker changes the storyline of Carter Stanley’s “Wayside Tavern,” they’re embracing a tradition that prizes permutation over permanence. Death, of course, is a constant, but change keeps our death songs alive. —Rene Spencer Saller
MISSION OF BURMA | Not a Photograph—The Mission of Burma Story | MVD
The world is flush with these rockumentaries. So much so that it’s getting harder and harder to sit through the rising and falling (and in this case, resurrection) tales of various bands—but this one is special.
Not heralded much in their time and more or less forgotten were it not for Moby (who covered “That’s When I Reach For My Revolver”) and the book Our Band Could Be Your Life (where they were profiled along with others), Burma was a big deal to a small group of people and seemed likely to remain that way. Disbanding in 1983, they reformed in this decade to play good-sized venues worldwide and actually get some of the recognition they deserved.
As the strange bridge between early ‘80s indie icons Black Flag on one side and REM on the other, Burma’s music endures and prevails. What was considered noisy clatter 25 years ago is now “alternative” rock; only these guys could structure a song decently and wove in the idea of sound effects quite well. What they didn’t do too well is sing with much vigor.
Not that it matters much—tunes like “Peking Spring” and “Academy Fight Song” are as hypnotically hooky as anything on FM Altie today. For some, this DVD will bring back the crazy days of being in the distinct minority, for newbies, a revelation that this trio was worth the hype. —Johnny Angel
JOHN LEGEND | Once Again | Sony
John Legend’s music evokes classic soul. His debut Get Lifted relied heavily on interpolations from numbers such as the Staple Singers’ “Let’s Do It Again.” Once Again is subtler, but still draws from secondhand sources: “Each Day Gets Better” sounds like Billy Joel’s “Leave a Tender Moment Alone,” and “Slow Dance” like Billy Stewart’s “I Do Love You.”
One could argue that Legend’s songwriting reflects a hip-hop era that prizes obvious homage. Like so many modern artists, he attempts timelessness through mimicry; it wouldn’t matter if it resulted in a stronger collection of material. Get Lifted had “Ordinary People,” “Used to Love U” and “I Can Change.” Once Again only has “Save Room,” a sly number that leans on Legend’s Manilow-like showmanship. —Mosi Reeves