February 2022 Rock/Pop Record Reviews

Ben Lamar Gay: Open Arms to Open Us
International Anthem IARC0051 (CD, LP, download). 2021. Ben LaMar Gay, Dave Vettraino, prods.; Dave Vettraino, eng.
Performance *****
Sonics ****

Ben LaMar Gay draws from experience, and plenty of it. He has dueted with the DuSable Bridge in downtown Chicago (check YouTube) and is a member of that city's fertile Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. He lived and worked in Brazil for three years, and last year was commissioned to compose a piece for New York City's Wet Ink Ensemble. His musical mind goes to many places, and fortunately he's got the intellect to hold it all together.

At the core of the vivid new Open Arms to Open Us is Gay's cornet, synthesizer, and soulful voice and the steady, intricate drumming of Tommaso Moretti. The build is guest players and a layering of disparate sounds suggesting a lifetime of listening to hip hop. Each song is a new adventure, a different collage of R&B, techno, gospel, ethnographic field recording, playground chant, or postminimalism. There are also buried bits of horn solos and passages of scraping strings, but there's always a pulse defining the mix.

Any effort to extract specific influences would only reflect the listener's own psycho-sonic profile. I can't hear "Bang Melodically Bang" without Funkadelic's 1977 single "Smokey" playing simultaneously in my head, but the polyrhythmic folds of speech, horn, keys, and drums in "I Be Loving Me Some of You" aren't quite like anything I've heard before and in a quick two minutes give way to the slowly loping avant Afropop of "Nyuzura," sung within an authoritative half-octave by British-Rwandan performance artist Dorothée Munyaneza.

Open Arms is a fast-moving album of mostly midtempo songs. Only three of 16 tracks break the four-minute mark; a half-dozen are less than two. Cohesion comes from the grip Gay keeps on his Technicolor, time-tripping ship.—Kurt Gottschalk


Pretenders: Pretenders and Pretenders II (40th Anniversary Deluxe Editions)
Sire/Rhino 0190296691812 (3CD) and 0190296691874 (3 CD). 2021. Chris Thomas, prod.; Bill Price, Tim Young, Chris Thomas, Dave Schultz, Dan Hersch, engs.
Performance ****½
Sonics ***½

There were women rockers before Chrissie Hynde, but she rocked harder than almost all of them (footnote 1). An American ex-hippie in punk-era London, Hynde spent years toiling on the margins of the music business, making connections and learning how to sing, play guitar, and write songs. She played in bands, sometimes waiting tables in the same dingy clubs. She paid dues.

At age 28, she burst onto the scene leading a group of young men from Herefordshire, 130 miles to the northwest, in a new band called the Pretenders, with one of the greatest debut albums ever. Three years later, after two albums, half the band was dead and Hynde started over.

These two 3-CD 40th Anniversary box sets, curated by Hynde, present the first two Pretenders albums in context, with demos, B-sides, and live performances from the years 1979–81.

In 1978, Hynde met a young bass player named Pete Farndon, who introduced her to a guitar player buddy from Herefordshire, James Honeyman-Scott. Soon, drummer Martin Chambers completed the band. They recorded a single, "Stop Your Sobbing"/"The Wait," at Nick Lowe's studio and settled on a band name. The single led to TV and radio performances. The band was signed to a record deal, and the Pretenders recorded their first album, which was released at the very beginning of the decade they would help define, in January 1980. The second album came a year and a half later.


The Pretenders practiced constantly and toured relentlessly, and its sound tightened and hardened. The contrast between a March 1980 Boston concert included with Pretenders and a September 1981 Santa Monica concert, included with Pretenders II, is striking. The more experienced band was much better.

The band lived as hard as they worked, and fate caught them. Farndon developed a heroin habit and was kicked out of the band in June 1982. A few days later, Honeyman-Scott died of a cocaine-induced heart attack at age 25. Farndon died a year later, age 30.

Beyond and above the tragedy, the Pretenders were a great rock band. The first album was something new and great, a fusion of classic rock with punk and a good bit of soul. Hynde came prepared with a pile of good songs, and Honeyman-Scott was all about clever hooks, runs, and mini-solos—a guitar hero for a more manic and lean kind of rock.

Pretenders II was more of the same but with a harder edge. The playing showed growth, even if the songs weren't all as good as those on the first album, but there is a dark, exhausted current in this music, audible evidence of the road taking its toll.

The early demos on disc 2 of Pretenders showcase the raw energy of a capable band in the throes of early formative excitement. The early BBC shows on discs 2 and 3 are somewhat rough but with constant improvement. Pretenders II includes less extra material, but the two concerts, at Central Park in August 1980 and in Santa Monica in 1981, are superb. It's clear from these concerts that the original Pretenders had further to go.

The remastering of both albums is meh—too much bass and overly dense vocals and guitars. The original LPs were not sonic showcases, but the new sound is overhyped and fatiguing. The bonus material varies but mostly rocks plenty hard.

Hynde moved forward with new Pretenders iterations, enjoyed decades of success and more hits. But the band never recaptured that initial magic of this relentless lady from Ohio and three blokes from the English sticks getting together and breaking through.—Tom Fine


Damon Albarn: The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows
Transgressive TRANSS55IX (vinyl). 2021. Damon Albarn, Samuel Egglenton, prods.; Stephen Sedgwick, eng.
Performance ****
Sonics ****

Since the breakup of Blur, Damon Albarn has been a restless traveler, continually seeking new musical lands to explore. Those explorations led him to lead the supergroup "project" The Good, the Bad, and the Queen, with drummer Tony Allen, Paul Simonon of The Clash, and Simon Tong of the Verve. This, his second solo album, follows the first in eschewing catchy choruses; if you're looking for those, you can find them in his other, more commercially successful project, Gorillaz.

This album is one of reflection and contemplation. It began life as a set of instrumentals composed and recorded with a group of talented Icelandic musicians at his home just outside Reykjavik. When COVID came, he returned to the UK for the lockdown. There, he added vocals.

Perhaps it is the settings of its creation that account for its tone. The album sleeve and the photographs within are of the large lumps of black lava that cover the desolate Icelandic landscape. Folklore says that this is where the hidden people live. Themes of loss, rebirth, and isolation are central to those folk tales. They're also important in the songs on The Nearer the Fountain.

On "Cormorant," Albarn asks "Am I imprisoned on this island?" Does he mean physically imprisoned or psychologically? Which island: Britain or Iceland? Is it the isolation of lockdown or a love lost?

The music is a blend of jazz, pop, and electronica. The production keeps the vocal close to the keyboards; it's sometimes reminiscent of Icelandic jazz groups ADHD and the Sunna Gunnlaugs Trio. Occasionally a sax, harpsichord, or trombone will burst in—even a field recording of the sea. Albarn has created an album of sublime beauty, managing warmth in a cold climate.—Phil Brett

Footnote 1: Joan Jett certainly rocks hard, as did Janis Joplin, and let's not forget Exene Cervenka and Poly Styrene (Marianne Joan Elliott-Said), and I'm sure readers will name others. Bottom line, women can rock hard, and Chrissie is one of the hardest rockers.

Allen Fant's picture

Always good to see The Pretenders checking in- TF

deckeda's picture

Someone asked me elsewhere why wouldn't a losslessly streamed song be the same as (the CD, or the whatever came before.) Setting aside whatever assumptions are necessary about each remainder of those respective reproduction chains ...

... This report on the Pretenders appears to be latest in a long line of "reimagining" by a new generation of content controllers more concerned about change for change's sake than they are about the result.

And so, if you only subscribe to a streaming service --- as many new listeners do today --- this new iteration of the old content may be all you ever hear, instead of whatever the original LP can provide. Which if memory serves, was incredible at the time, even on my mediocre gear back then.

I appreciate the warning.