Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Go tell it

Speck Mountain
Some Sweet Relief
Score: 9

Sin and souls, fire and water, night and day, shame and glory: These recurring themes mark the second album by Chicago band Speck Mountain. Some Sweet Relief, at the nexus of space rock and gospel, is riddled with religious signifiers, yet it carries the mystique of the implicit. You'll find no shouts of "hallelujah!" here. The oomph of gospel bursts out in lead singer Marie-Claire Balabanian's drawn-out notes --- the ooooohs and the ohhhhhs and the i-iii-iiiiiis --- and in the throaty affirmations of multi-instrumentalist Kate Walsh's saxophone.

Mostly, though, there's a sense of patience and perseverance in the music and in the pace at which Balabanian sings. It's not quite tranquility, because these are songs of internal conflict and struggle, as well as of reflection, but there's a constancy to her voice. Even when she's singing about "this worried mind," she sounds supernaturally reassured.

Organ, electric piano and layered backing vocals provide overtones of reverence, while the former also supply the drone and flutter that make up the general haziness customary to space rock. "Angela," one of two instrumental or near-instrumental songs, repeats the woman's name like an incantation: "Angela / oh Angela / Angela / oh Angela."

Some Sweet Relief traffics in atmosphere. Its power is one that slowly builds over the course of its 39 minutes. The organ's swirl is enveloping; the electric piano tingles and twitches; the bass purrs with warmth; the dual guitar lines are resonant and tenderly probing.

Balabanian and multi-instrumentalist Karl Briedrick wrote the songs, which all seem to spring from a deep, personal place illuminated by intense examination. In that place they found disgrace and infidelity, but strength and righteousness, too.

The title track details a plea for mercy: "There was a day / oh how that sun did shine / I know that day / it's no longer mine / some sweet relief / lay your hand on me." In "Backslider" --- that's preacher parlance for returning to your sinful ways --- Balabanian tells of her partner's unfaithfulness. "My guy's got a wanderin' eye," she confesses. But "I Feel Eternal," by comparison, testifies of an inner fortitude, one borne of no less than the soul.

In a time when organized religion is on the downfall but spirituality is thriving, this album captures the zeitgeist. In a poll published in April, Newsweek found in a survey of 1,003 Americans that 30 percent describe themselves as "spiritual" rather than "religious," an increase of 6 percent since 2005.

The American Religious Identification Survey, conducted last year and involving more than 54,000 respondents, showed a hemorrhaging of mainline Christian churches.

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, a project of the Pew Research Center, noted in its U.S. Religious Landscape Study that there was a significant rise in the number of unaffiliated people, hitting 16.1 percent. The study, conducted in 2007, involved more than 35,000 Americans.

This album is not worship music, but it feels like holy music. The symbology of Some Sweet Relief --- the use of rivers, sunshine and flame, rather than crosses and pulpits and churches --- lends the album a free and open identity that suggests an earlier, noninstitutionalized faith, one as pure as the elements.

As Speck Mountain strive for communion with the divine, we may be joining them.

Monday, June 8, 2009

A joint mission

The Spirit of Apollo
Score: 6

Squeak E. Clean and DJ Zegon, repping North America and South America between them, aim to bring people together under a banner of hip-hop and humanity. As N.A.S.A., they've made quite a start: There are 40 or so guests on The Spirit of Apollo.

Seeing the wide and varied cast --- Santigold, Karen O, Ghostface Killah, Tom Waits, Gift of Gab, David Byrne, George Clinton, to name a few --- is all-around impressive. But the reality is that sometimes less is more, and the Apollo architects run the risk of a megasized muddle. Even with most guests limited to one track, that still means that two or three or more guests will have to share that space, and these folks ain't sidemen.

Perhaps N.A.S.A. were jugglers in a previous life, because most of the collaborations come off smooth. It's understandable that some songs might not be as strong and as chiseled as they could be with fewer artists at work, but the album is, overall, a fun ride with occasional thrills.

"The People Tree" produces some shining moments through the rapid back-and-forth verses of Chali 2Na and Gift of Gab, with Chali as God and Gab as a believer asking life's big questions. David Byrne, perhaps embodying some prehistoric carnivorous plant, comes in on the pre-chorus and chorus, his vacillating pitch delivering loopiness like "tasty little human beings / I grow them on the people tree." When he sticks around for the next track, it's akin to an actor sneaking onto the set next door: In this case, it's a Chuck D historical drama about money, with a supporting cast of Ras Congo, Seu Jorge and Z-Trip. Byrne sticks out. Although the sloganeering chorus allows for everyone to jump in, it's a rather weak one: "Money! Money, money, money, money, money, money / Money is the root of all evil!"

"Hip Hop" is a rote ode to its subject (as if hip-hop didn't have enough of them already), and "O Pato" needlessly perverts Donald Duck, but the big-banging "N.A.S.A. Music," which unites E-40, Method Man and DJ Swamp, could serve as The Spirit of Apollo's theme song. "Strange Enough" similarly strikes gold with a slate of Ol' Dirty Bastard, Fatlip and Karen O. Her crack-up in the penultimate chorus points to the lightness of the mood and shows that she had no preconceptions about how the finished song would sound. (Also, she's evidently not magisterial outside the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.) The most-talked-about combo, Tom Waits and Kool Keith, for "Spacious Thoughts," is suitably strange, with the rapper's free association giving way to the growler's barreling portents.

"Gifted," the best argument for an Apollo 2, makes Kanye West, Santigold and Lykke Li sound inseparable, with West and Santigold trading off the main verses and she and Li handling the chorus and popping in elsewhere. A blipping solar babble drops into a tubby synth revving, setting the stage for West's marquee performance. Mixing levity with audacity in his own special way, he earns a chuckle with the opening, "Hey eh / I'm known for runnin' my mouth," as we all nod in agreement --- and he then immediately proceeds to run his mouth for the rest of his appearance! But West has reached a point where the boasts roll like a gag reel, and he seems alternately aware of this and oblivious to it. Here, he one-ups himself after each one: "While y'all on ten, I'm on eleven / Imma make the news, be on at seven / matter fact I'm on this very second / I'm in first and y'all in second."

Bolstering the album's "We are the world" premise, and adding a space theme, are photos (care of the other NASA) and samples mentioning the Earth or the Apollo shuttle. The album ender (before the inevitable hidden tracks) features part of an old speech by Richard Nixon, who waxes sanguine about the moon landing as a transcendent, community-building force.

Nixon --- certainly not the first person to come to mind amid themes of tolerance and cooperation --- is an odd fit, to be sure. He'd probably brand the whole Spirit of Apollo production as a communist conspiracy. But there's another side to using Nixon: The spirit of Apollo means peace and partying, even for those outside your circle. It's a commitment to work together.