Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Turn Up That Noise!

By Stephen Grimstead

AUGUST 17, 1998: 

The Willard Grant Conspiracy, Flying Low (Slow River/Rykodisc)

The Willard Grant Conspiracy is a loose group of former grunge musicians who’ve traded in their salvos of feedback and flannel shirts for basic black and a spartan traditional sound that they dub “swamp noir.” Comparisons with Nick Cave are inevitable. Like Cave, lead vocalist Robert Fisher possesses a deep, dark, brooding voice that probes deep, dark brooding topics while the rest of the WGC underpin his vocals with some spare country that’s chillingly intense.

Despite the fact that these players hail mainly from New England, this CD projects a desolate Midwestern feel to me. The phrase “Prairie Gothic” keeps coming to mind, maybe because, in my opinion, this release would have made the perfect soundtrack for the movie In Cold Blood. Music that seems, on the surface, simply innocent and country slowly sucks you down into the nastiness lurking beneath our vision of a wholesome, White Bread America. Images painted by the lyrics keep repeating on me, disturbing scenarios that conjure up visuals from David Lynch’s movie Blue Velvet.

All of these cinematic references just emphasize how skillfully WGC create troubling sound bites and atmosphere. Light fare it’s not, but the gloom is wonderfully melodic and accessible, reminiscent of John Cale, Tom Waits, and other fine artists who explore the underbelly of the human condition. Despite its often minimalist approach and the ample use of sound effects, Flying Low hangs some tasty musical meat on its bones. Mandolins, harps, concertinas, and cellos surround Fisher’s spooky vocals in an unobtrusive but highly effective way. One of the best tracks here, the enigmatic “Eephus Pitch,” begins with some hesitant piano and then charges into a Crazy Horse groove that sounds for all the world like some bizarre collaboration between Nick Cave and Neil Young. Great stuff! – Lisa Lumb

Van Morrison, The Philosopher’s Stone (Polydor)

Van Morrison’s strikingly original music is based on many influences. He shamelessly draws on the blues, country, jazz, and even literature and poetry, often citing his sources in the process. Morrison distills these influences through his own peculiar vision, one filled with personal mythology, religious questing, and literary references. This ability to synthesize, distill, and ultimately create has marked him as one of the most original musicians of our time.

For years, rumors have circulated regarding vaults of outtakes and alternate takes of Morrison’s material. Rumor becomes reality with the release of this double-disc set, featuring 30 previously unheard songs. It’s a gold mine of riches.

The selections fall into three broad categories. Reaching into his roots, Van covers traditional fare (“John Henry”), Leadbelly’s “Western Plain,” and offers a musical version of W.B. Yeats’ “Crazy Jane On God,” each displaying his uncanny genius at reinterpretation. Secondly, there’s a strong emphasis on the blues and R&B. Lastly, and perhaps most interestingly, are a score of alternate takes and outtakes from the ’70s, Morrison’s most consistently creative decade. These are not cast-offs or weaker tunes – indeed much of this material stands with his best work.

It would be tempting to call The Philosopher’s Stone a grail of lost material: long sought for, but finally arrived. However, this collection is tantalizingly subtitled The Unreleased Tapes: Volume One, indicating that similar offerings might be available in the future. Until such time, we’ll just have to savor this extraordinary collection. Very highly recommended. – Gene Hyde

Squirrel Nut Zippers, Perennial Favorites (Mammoth)

There’s nothing wrong with wearing your influences on your sleeve. The Zips wear them well, blending a mess o’ musical styles into a delightful batch of swinging and ever-so-pleasantly derivative tunes.

The show starts with a few baritone sax notes, as Dixieland giddiness reigns on “Suits Are Picking Up The Bill.” Billie Holiday’s presence fills the air as Katherine Whalen sings “Low Down Man,” while “Ghost of Stephen Foster” mixes klezmer whimsy with some pithy observations on Foster’s lyrics. “Fat Cat Keeps Getting Fatter” features a wonderfully memorable and catchy chorus about economic insouciance (“what does it matter/fat cat keeps getting fatter”). “True Maqacq” packs a calypso punch, while big-band, Western swing, more klezmer, more Dixieland, and more fun keep this disc interesting from beginning to end.

The key thing – and this is why this band works so well – is that songwriters Jim Mathus and Tom Maxwell understand the place of wit in songwriting, both with their lyrics and their music. More than anything else, the Zips are leading the retro-swing movement because their music is not only well-executed, it’s also lots of fun. – G.H.

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