Bill MacKay & Ryley Walker
SpiderBeetleBee (Drag City)
I came down hard on Ryley Walker’s voice on his last solo record, openly wishing for an instrumental affair—and whoa, I had no idea he had such a project up and running already. SpiderBeetleBee is the second album of acoustic guitar duets by Walker and the insanely versatile Bill MacKay, and though it’s sophisticated, it’s blessedly unpretentious. The baroque Americana of “The Grand Old Trout” sets the general tone, and the closing “Dragonfly” makes for an apt bookend with guitars buoyed by deep cello swells courtesy of the Chicago Symphony’s Katinka Kleijn. In between, the tracks wander agreeably. “Pretty Weeds Revisited” features lovely runs evoking Jerry Garcia circa 1969, while on the more experimental “Naturita,” McKay and Walker follow a spacious, tinkling introduction with a raga-like breakdown (a tabla actually enters—and integrates nicely—on the brief “I Heard Them Singing”). SpiderBeetleBee is an assured, ranging keeper.
Anna St. Louis
First Songs (Woodsist)
Aptly named, First Songs is the somewhat tentative but enticing debut of Kansas City native Anna St. Louis, who accompanies herself on guitar and keeps things sparse; a faintly humming organ and hushed tambourine are characteristic accents, and the full band that appears on some tracks mostly adds volume rather than sharing the spotlight. Retro gimmicks such as occasional country-honk vocalisms and a tack piano trotted out on “Evermore” are regrettable and unnecessary, since St. Louis’ voice, which lands halfway between Patsy Cline and Hope Sandoval, is charismatic enough to support the songs. The good news is that the songs are mostly worth supporting, and the album gets stronger down the stretch, beginning with the only real curveball, the squiggly keyboard instrumental, “Stray,” which rolls into the wistful “Sun” and the concluding Piedmont blues-styled “Fire.”
Afternooners (Dark Entries)
Rochester native Patrick Cowley moved to San Francisco to attend college in 1971, studying synthesizers before linking up with Sylvester to produce the latter’s perennial smash, “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real),” and releasing his own dance floor hits “Menergy” and “Megatron Man.” In 1981, Cowley was misdiagnosed with food poisoning; he had contracted HIV, and succumbed to AIDS the following year. From 1979 to 1982, Cowley had also supplied soundtracks for the gay porn produced by John Coletti at L.A.’s Fox Studio, and Afternooners is the third and final offering in this Dark Entries series of that music. It is gloriously cheesy, steamy electro disco with titles cribbed from the film loops: “Cycle Tuff,” “Hot Beach,” “Big Shot.” Afternooners might provide a bridge from Giorgio Moroder to Human League, but perhaps even better to hear it as a monument to its own moment.
Even a Tree Can Shed Tears
(Light in the Attic)
To call Even a Tree Can Shed Tears the year’s best early-’70s Japanese folk rock compilation is an unkind joke—it’s a thoroughly enchanting collection of songs previously unavailable stateside. Reissue stalwart Light in the Attic provides its usual exquisite packaging—reproducing all 19 original album covers (many are spellbinding); printing lyrics in Japanese and English; and including a pair of helpful, contextualizing essays. There’s a lot of personnel crossover, and the compilation hangs together well; though tracks like “Zeni No Kouryouryoku Ni Tsuite” (“The Power of Money”) dip a toe into acid rock, most songs hew to the hushed side. The lyrics throughout are personal, but instead of solipsistic confessionals, they’re oblique and inventive. Even a Tree Can Shed Tears makes me want to know more about it all, and isn’t that what you want in an introduction?