Down II: A Bustle in Your Hedgerow
Down, the legendary side project jumpstarted a decade ago by heavy metal luminaries Philip Anselmo and Pepper Keenan (of Pantera and Corrosion of Conformity, respectively), is no longer an experimental, smoke-'em-if-you-got-'em musical one-shot. The good ol' boys from the teeming morass of New Orleans have decided to "Hail the Leaf" once again with the release of Down II: A Bustle in Your Hedgerow — their much-anticipated follow-up to NOLA, one of the heaviest metal albums to come out in the '90s.
Considering how incessantly fresh the sustain-heavy, dirge-like riffs on NOLA were, the expectations for Down II would naturally (and unfairly) be as high as the band was when they hunkered down for 28 days in a barn outside New Orleans to record their second album. Featuring Anselmo and Rex Brown (also of Pantera), Keenan, Crowbar's Kurt Windstein, and Eyehategod's Jimmy Bower, Down cranks out another heavy bevy of head-bobbing grooves with choice cuts such as "There's Something on My Side," "Beautifully Depressed," and "The Seed" — sparking the intense rock smokeout with the lurching opener "Lysergik Funeral Procession."
More skilled and ambitious than any mere stoner metal band, the supergroup introduces Farfisa organs, Dobro guitars, and timpani in an attempt to rise above that limiting metal label; and they pepper the album with several mellow tracks that belie the straightforward, no-frills approach upon which Down built its legend. Songs such as "Stained Glass Cross," "Learn From This Mistake," and "Where I'm Goin" are well constructed, but make Down II sound like the heavy metal equivalent of an Allman Brothers Band album.
I reckon Down is striving for growth and parity in their sophomore effort — a feat most rock bands attempt after a successful debut. That's not necessarily a bad thing; it's just hard to appreciate this album's mature metal MO when I still have the thick, cumbrous riffs of NOLA's "Bury Me in Smoke" rumbling in my head. — Albert A. Lopez
Medeski Martin and Wood
(CD, Blue Note Records)
If jazz trio Medeski Martin and Wood were ever in danger of being co-opted by the jam band crowd (as it seemed for a spell, with their live shows pushing all the right tie-dyed buttons), the group's new Blue Note release serves as a definitive assertion that it ain't gonna happen. Yeah, a headful of white-boy dreadlocks could definitely bob to these rhythms, but the fellas have clearly decided not to milk that angle.
Instead, they're pushing their unique mixture of soul jazz, funk, and avant sounds into new territory (or, at least, further into territory they've reconnoitered in the past). Inviting no fewer than three turntablists along for the ride, the ensemble incorporates scratching on over half the tracks — and rather than just plop down a track of virtuosic tricks, these deejays are serious about their roles as participants in a jazz ensemble, integrating their solos tightly with the rest of the group. Elsewhere, the bandmates enlist an assortment of multi-culti percussionists.
Elsewhere on the record, the trio proffers atmospheres that are a little gloomier than the jam crowd tends to want, laying down cool, thick textures instead of easily-hummable melodies. Much more than a mere evolution of the Jimmy Smith soul-jazz sound, the trio has figured out how to use an instrument (the organ and its cousins) that carries the burden of a lot of preconceptions, in a way that's fresh and exciting. Even if you can dance to it. — John DeFore
Hoagy Carmichael and Friends Stardust Melody (CD, Bluebird Jazz/RCA Victor) Stardust Melody: Beloved and Rare Songs of Hoagy Carmichael with Richard Sudhalter, Barbara Lea, Bob Dorough, Jim Ferguson
He may not have quite the name recognition of George or Ira Gershwin or Cole Porter, but Hoagy Carmichael's Tin Pan Alley-era tunes are almost certainly lodged in your head: Ray Charles made "Georgia on My Mind" famous, Willie reinvented "Stardust." What's more, Gershwin never got to share a screen with Lauren Bacall (as Hoagy did in To Have and Have Not).
Two new discs compile the composer/singer's hits and rare tunes. Confusingly, they're both called Stardust Melody — not such a startling coincidence, considering that both were produced by Richard Sudhalter, author of a new biography by the same name.
Bluebird's release collects recordings from the '20s through the '40s, with nearly a dozen tracks featuring Carmichael, and others showcasing singers such as Mildred Bailey, Louis Armstrong, and Ethel Waters. It's a terrific, varied collection that offers authoritative renditions of some tunes while presenting alternate approaches to the best-known songs. Check out the composer's solo piano rendition of "Star Dust": He starts it in the stately manner with which we're familiar, but halfway through he breaks it down, tearing off on jazzy riffs in every direction.
The A-Records' project is freshly recorded, and it's nice to hear a project envisioned as an album, especially when one's only exposure to somebody's work is through random 78s issued over a period of decades. The disc leans toward easy listening more than some might like, but the musicianship is strong and tasteful — you can imagine this getting played in a lot of cafés that wouldn't typically play the crusty original recordings. Yet, the album loses that "lite" feel whenever Bob Dorough steps up to the mike; his quirky vocal approach embodies the sly character Carmichael himself projected in his film appearances. The contrast is especially notable on "Star Dust," where he follows a honey-dipped duet by Jim Ferguson and Barbara Lea — the Red Headed Stranger may want to watch his back. — John DeFore