Album reviews: Benji Hughes, Freakwater, Tortoise

Get the scoop on the latest releases from Benji Hughes, Freakwater and Tortoise in this week's album reviews. Photo: File photo Get the scoop on the latest releases from Benji Hughes, Freakwater and Tortoise in this week’s album reviews. Photo: File photo

Benji Hughes

Songs in the Key of Animals (Merge)

As expected, the guy who wrote “Let’s Duet” for Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story is something of a joker. In 2008, North Carolinian Benji Hughes released his debut, A Love Extreme, a double-length album with his face on the cover in rapturous close-up, looking like a trucker about to climax. He dripped his tenor over smooth jams and got away with song titles such as “Mmmmmmm.”

Songs in the Key of Animals features more ’70s R&B and soft rock filtered through the decades. It sure goes down easy—but there’s a fine line between chill and lazy. Repetition feels good; hearing “I’m in love when I’m in love with you” 16 times in a row doesn’t feel better. On the positive side are the grooves: pulsing suaveness of Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac, glammy funk of early Prince. And Hughes proves an affecting vocalist on songs such as the wistful, Magnetic Fields-ish “Magic Summertime.” Ironically, the joker may be best playing it straight.

Have a listen, here.

Freakwater

Scheherazade (Bloodshot)

With the nauseating virus of indie-folk raging unabated ’cross the land, let us hail Janet Bean and Catherine Irwin, the Kentucky duo fronting the band known since the late ’80s by the deliciously apt moniker, Freakwater. Scheherazade, their first album since 2005, isn’t a return to form—the group never lost form, it only took time off. Some ears will find the lonesome keening too raw or the playing too gnarled or the themes too dark. But this isn’t GG Allin, folks. Get acclimated with “What the People Want,” as Bean and Irwin call out evil amid minimal banjo and ghostly fiddling. Dive into the swirling cowpunk flip-out of “Down Will Come Baby” and land on “Skinny Knee Bone,” which sounds like the quiet verses of “Wild Horses,” except Keith is singing with Gram Parsons instead of Mick, and they’re both girls. Elsewhere there’s parlor C&W (“Take Me With You”), barroom waltzes (“Number One With a Bullet”) and ghost songs (uh, “Ghost Song”). The water’s freaky: Get in.

Have a listen, here.

Tortoise

The Catastrophist (Thrill Jockey)

In 1996, Chicago instrumental rockers Tortoise released the stunning musical sculpture Millions Now Living Will Never Die, shifting the center of the underground. The Catastrophist is another set of protean constructions that don’t hop genres, but melds them into new alloys. Tortoise scores nonexistent movie scenes: “At Odds With Logic” conjures turgid clouds over a lakefront, and “Hot Coffee” could be a nighttime cop cruise along steamy, deserted boulevards. The band also adds two guest vocal spots: Yo La Tengo’s Georgia Hubley blends her bashful croon into the distorted but soulful “Yonder Blue”; it sounds like a mutant cover of “Rainy Night in Georgia.” Then there’s an actual cover, a curious choice: David Essex’s FM classic “Rock On.” Tortoise and Todd Rittman do it virtually note for note and turn it completely inside out, almost like a study for composition class. Tortoise may be all nerds, but it’s also a kickass band transcending lofty concepts. The show at the Southern on March 20 promises to rearrange minds.

Have a listen, here.

–Nick Rubin