End of the year brings tasty musical leftovers


Dec. 29, 2006, 11:06AM
End of the year brings tasty musical leftovers

By ANDREW DANSBY
Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle

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December isn’t exactly a gold mine of new music. Most stuff the labels want you to buy gets released before November ends to ensure prime holiday retail runs.

That said, the doldrums provide a nice bit of time to catch up.

Who could resist the opportunity to cover Neil Diamond, Sonic Youth and Ghostface Killah in one review? Each has a recently released, odds-and-ends-type collection.

Diamond’s back-to-basics 2005 release gains a bonus disc full of extras () that are charming and polish-free, more so than even the originals. Two new cuts are Men Are So Easy and Delirious Love (featuring Brian Wilson). The former is fine, while the latter is a sweet intersection of two ’60s forces.

The bonus disc includes alternate versions or demos for each of the 12 songs. Nothing will make your ears pop, but it’s still fascinating to hear Diamond’s voice and songs so unadorned. We, a particular favorite on 12 Songs, shows dramatic development, starting as a slow shuffle and turning into a plucky little anthem.

Sonic Youth has long been old-fashioned about releasing its music, putting out singles, vinyl platters and independent releases in a way that wreaks havoc on the pocketbooks of completists. The 11 songs on Destroyed Room: B-Sides and Rarities () are an iceberg tip of what’s available, but they flow nicely together.

It opens with the 10-minute Fire Engine Dream and closes with the 25-minute The Diamond Sea, so it should be stated that some of the group’s extremes are present. Kim’s Chords is a personal fave, a nicely swelling instrumental.

The Wu-Tang Clan’s grittiest rhymesmith released the magnificent Fishscale earlier this year, which would make More Fish () musical chum. But as chum goes, these guest-heavy bits and pieces aren’t at all bad, as Ghost raps over some spartan, old-school productions, particularly the hard-driving Guns ‘n’ Razors. If you only have time and/or money for one Ghostface record this year, make it Fishscale. But fish is good for you, so don’t be afraid to grab a second helping.

***

Even Americana rag No Depression doesn’t bother trying to define what is and what is not Americana anymore. Despite a boom in fiddle-toting rockers a few years back, the more interesting folks who were lumped into the genre put some new spin on old folk forms. Three favorites from the past few months …

Abilene native Micah P. Hinson makes achy, gorgeous music, sort of rural-American gypsy-goth rock. His second LP, Micah P. Hinson and the Opera Circuit (), is more ambitious than his 2005 debut, though its mood is similarly dark. He starts things slowly with Seems Almost Impossible before exploding into a Pogues-y march on Digging a Grave. Hinson’s raspy voice is coy, often presented in a deep murmur only to rip into a haunting shriek. It’s Been So Long is a fine example of his masterful quiet/loud dynamic, with guitars and a harmonica distorted as though they were pumped through an antique radio.

Kentuckian Bonnie Prince Billy, aka Will Oldham, is a wildly prolific singer-songwriter whose warbly Appalachian voice sometimes diverts attention from his huge pop melodies and gets him pegged as some modernized hillbilly. He’s great with openers, and Love Comes to Me is no exception on The Letting Go () . It’s as pretty a tune has he’s come up with (so far). It’s a acoustic ditty duet with Dawn McCarthy nestling her voice around his. Busy as Oldham is, no two records of his sound the same. This is his lushest, warmest recording despite being made in Iceland. There are dramatic strings on Cursed Sleep and a playful touch of sea chanty on No Bad News.

Prim, nerdy and wordy, the Decemberists made the jump to the majors with its credibility and sound intact on The Crane Wife (). Conceptual as always, the band based its latest on a Japanese folk tale. War, murder, travel and all the other requisite elements are delivered with some nonmainstream instrumentation, big pop hooks and frontman Colin Meloy’s weirdly warm voice. The Crane Wife Pt. 3 opens, and it’s among the the poppiest tracks, though parts of the sprawling epic The Island prove perfectly hummable. Perhaps it’s just a matter of personal taste that I enjoyed the seafaring Picaresque (released last year) a little more, but it’s hard to knock an ambitious record that’s this engaging.

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