Spin Control

January 28, 2007



The Good, the Bad & the Queen, "The Good, the Bad & the Queen" (Virgin)  3 and a half stars

Regardless of whether or not the recently rumored Blur reunion comes to pass, Damon Albarn, the erstwhile leader of that underrated '90s Britpop band, has firmly established himself as a fascinating artist in his own right, even if he's done it by being a musical chameleon. He's hidden behind the alter-egos of cartoon hip-hoppers Gorillaz, and he's traveled to Africa to merge electronica and worldbeat on "Mali Music" (2002). Now, he's presenting himself in yet another guise, as the vocalist and driving force behind this low-key, awkwardly named supergroup with former Clash bassist Paul Simonon, ex-Verve guitarist Simon Tong, the great Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen (who used to play with Fela Kuti) and producer DJ Danger Mouse.

If there are occasional hints of the sweeping orchestral majesty of Blur and the Verve, you're forgiven for missing much of a connection between these 12 tracks and the Clash (unless we count some of the dub reggae experiments on "Sandinista"), the complex polyrhythms that made Allen famous or the funky lunacy of Danger Mouse and Gnarls Barkley. Instead, these five talented musicians collaborate to create and sustain a dark, somnambulant and often Apocalyptic mood, as on the tracks "Kingdom of Doom," "A Soldier's Tale" and "Herculean." But born on the sleepy grooves and floating through the narcoleptic mix, Albarn's melodies are as inviting as ever, making for an entrancing album that conjures the ominous yet romantic vibe of life time during wartime.

Wild Carnation, "Superbus" (Lucky Pig Records) 3 and a half stars

Although they broke up after their fourth album "Time for a Witness" (1991), the Feelies still loom large as an influence on inventive rock bands, with echoes of their swelling melodies and trademark "crazy rhythms" in the Strokes and the Arcade Fire, to name only two. Fans of the New Jersey quintet have been hoping for a reunion for years, and while there's no sign that will ever happen, they can content themselves with the rare but always fulfilling release from veteran Glenn Mercer (who's issuing a solo album later this year) and Brenda Sauter, the vocalist, bassist and leader of Wild Carnation.

Sauter's group made its impressive debut as a guitar, bass and drums trio with a single and an album ("Tricycle") released by the then Chicago-based Delmore Records in 1995. Twelve years may seem like a ridiculously long wait between releases, but then the Feelies were never a band to be rushed, either, preferring to craft their mysterious sounds in their suburban basement laboratory, and waiting to issue them until they had a suitably impressive set. Now expanded to a quartet with the addition of a wonderfully droning Farfisa organ, Wild Carnation does the Feelies' legacy proud on 10 lovely and hypnotic songs produced by fellow indie-rock legend James Mastro of the Bongos, with Sauter's limited but charming vocals (think Maureen Tucker of the Velvet Underground) and the group's variation of that familiar undertow rhythm grabbing and holding the spotlight.