September 2023 Rock/Pop Record Reviews

Pit Pony: World to Me
Clue Records CLUE118 (LP). 2023. Chris McManus, eng. & prod.
Performance ****
Sonics ***½

Pit Pony is a young band that hails from Tyneside, Newcastle, an English region once best known as one of Britain's main coalmining areas. In the early days of British coalmining, pit ponies were the engines for moving coal. They rarely saw the light of day. I truly hope this Pit Pony does, because this, their debut, is a powerhouse of an album. It may be my Album of the Year.

Labeling music is risky, and calling Pit Pony punk or post-punk might create misconceptions. It's true that the driving force of the quintet is two buzzsaw guitars, with the powerful voice of Jackie Purver hovering between them. But Pit Pony's sound is contemporary and exciting. There is definitely punk here: At times they remind me of fellow Geordies—a Geordy is a resident of Tyneside, Newcastle—Penetration, at others of early Blondie. But this album is no nostalgia trip.

World to Me is fresh and snappy. Pit Pony is a great live band, and Chris McManus's unfussy, honest production manages to (almost) capture the energy of them on stage. The sonic production is clear without being clinical. It does the job it was set to do.

In the main, the songs are concerned with love and problematic relationships, with an occasional nod to the stresses and strains of modern British life. Lyrically, the band utilizes a spectrum of cultural references, from Cruella de Ville to supermarkets, the Empire State Building to William Blake. Some, including the single "Black Tar," are high-speed numbers, but the album also holds more carefully crafted songs, such as the wonderful "Supermarket," which builds from slow tempo to wall of sound. It's a song to be played loudly and repeatedly, a joy to the listener but not the neighbors.

That's true of several wonderfully catchy numbers here, which combine to prove that Pit Pony is capable of mining a superb seam.—Phil Brett

Marc Ribot's Ceramic Dog: Connection
Marc Ribot (guitars, tres, dobro, bass, vocals), Shahzad Ismaily (bass, electronics, vocals), Ches Smith (drums, percussion, electronics, vocals), six guests
Knockwurst Kw-003 (CD). 2023. Ribot, prod.; Vishal Nayak, Ben Greenberg, Scott Hull, engs.
Performance ****½
Sonics ****

There is "beyond category" and then there is Marc Ribot. From Tom Waits and John Zorn to The Lounge Lizards and solo accompaniment to Charlie Chaplin, Ribot has spent the past five decades defining New York City eclecticism.

A key project of the last 15 years has been his Ceramic Dog trio. It is post-, pre-, and proto-everything. Much of its appeal comes from two equally catholic band members tapped by Ribot, bassist Shahzad Ismaily and drummer Ches Smith, whose other forays have ranged from Yoko Ono to Haitian voudou percussion.

Within these 10 songs is astonishing diversity, even for Ribot. The opening title track is a swaggering, bluesy shout; that's followed by "Subsidiary," more punk than most punk. "Ecstasy," with guest vocalist Syd Straw, is driven toward a calypso-like breakdown by the Farfisa played by guest Anthony Coleman. Instrumental "Swan," the second longest track at nearly 10 minutes, featuring James Brandon Lewis on tenor sax, recalls the bombast of Sonny Sharrock and the recently departed Peter Brötzmann on Last Exit. "Heart Attack" somehow moves from nu metal to beatnik jazz and back. The Arthur Schwartz/Howard Dietz standard "That's Entertainment," with Coleman, feels like a track from a reunited Dead Kennedys album.

The sonics are great, but the album has a charming lo-fi vibe. Ribot's vocals are processed to the point of causticity, and the drums often boom like Bill Ward seeking payback. The mix emphasizes a group sound, fully integrating various guests. The album closes with "Crumbia," with Oscar Noriega on clarinet; it's Colombian folk filtered through composer George Crumb—or is it subversive cartoonist Robert Crumb? Or both?—Andrey Henkin

Duane Betts: Wild & Precious Life
Royal Potato Family Records (auditioned as CD). 2023. Duane Betts, prod.; Bobby Tis, eng.
Performance *****
Sonics *****

Some things are worth the wait. After more than 20 years spent supporting his father's band, Great Southern, and partnering with Devon Allman in The Allman Betts band, Duane Betts has released his solo debut, Wild & Precious Life. The album was recorded at Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks's Swamp Raga Studio, with guests including Trucks. It was recorded direct to analog tape.

The songs deliver a fresh perspective on south-infused rock. Thematically, they address personal struggles, appreciating fleeting life and the joys of being present in the moment. This extraordinary mix of blues, rock, folk, and country soars with twin-guitar harmonies. At times it feels like a distant cousin to early Allman Brothers' deep cuts. What sets the music apart is the careful deployment of sonic nuance and surprise. The opener, "Evergreen," is a classic southern rock march that throws a shoulder toward jazz as it ends with a bright, brassy trumpet solo that dances playfully above the action below. Duane's signature Les Paul Gold Top makes memorable appearances throughout, most notably on "Waiting on a Song" and the epic instrumental track, "Under the Bali Moon." As the guitar sits at the top, remarkable drum work by Tyler "Falcon" Greenwell, on loan from the Tedeschi Trucks Band, completes his sound. He propels these songs with a jazz-like precision and seems to fill all sonic gaps.

Most songs on this double record track at just over four and a half minutes and rarely mine the jam moments that will surely arrive when they are performed live. Instead, these songs reflect the careful sense of reflection that took place as Betts wrote these very personal pieces. The words throughout underscore the album's title, implicitly acknowledging that some of the best things in life take time to develop. This album is one.—Ray Chelstowski

Galen & Paul: Can We Do Tomorrow Another Day?
Sony Music 19658781291 (LP). 2023. Tony Visconti, prod.; Riccardo Damien, eng.
Performance ****
Sonics ****

The pairing of Galen Ayers, the folk-singing daughter of Kevin Ayers, and Paul Simonon, former bassist for The Clash, is one of the more surprising of the year. Their first album together, Can We Do Tomorrow Another Day?, is another thing one might not easily have imagined; certainly it's not easy to describe.

Try to think of early 1960s easy-listening music, sort of Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood, or Blur at their most music-hall whimsical. (Damon Albarn is a guest on several tracks, playing melodica.) The vibe is of a smoky Paris bar, but even then it's not that simple: Some numbers are sung in Spanish, some in English.

Songs like "It's Another Night" name-check Marble Arch, Wardour Street, red buses, and the Royal Exchange. It could so easily have been an Austin Powers pastiche. But, though you listen with a smile, this is no musical joke, not with the caliber of the musicians present: Ayers, Simonon, ex-Verve guitarist Simon Tong, and Brit jazz drummer (and former Polar Bear) Sebastian Rochford, all produced by the great Tony Visconti, who manages to keep the sound clean while creating an intimate atmosphere. It's reminiscent of someone else with a link to the Clash: Vic Godard. His band, Subway Sect, supported the Clash on the White Riot tour. His debut, What's the Matter Boy? (1980), similarly jettisoned post-Beatles pop for an earlier, nonrock sound.

As a vocalist, Simonon is no Otis Redding. Still, his half-spoken/half-sung vocals contrast nicely with Ayers's mellow folky singing and complement the London-based stories he tells. Can We Do Tomorrow Another Day? takes a few plays to get over the shock of confounded expectations, but its warmth, affection, and simple (but not simplistic) tunes win you over in the end. It is also a dead cert to win album title of the year.—Phil Brett

ok's picture

..are awsome recommentations; stereophile has long been my main guide to new/old music alright.