For a goodly portion of the '90s, Athens, Ga.'s Five Eight was the Bay area scene's favorite local band that wasn't local. Their combination of arena-scale presence and tunes, and house-party intimacy, connected with just about everyone who saw them. But eventually, having seen Five Eight roughly six million times, we kind of moved on. The group's falling out of flavor coincided roughly with other, bigger setbacks: Drummer/co-founder Patrick "Tigger" Ferguson split. Support guitarist Sean Dunn split. The band's label, Velvel, collapsed shortly after issuing their next-level coming-out disc, Gasolina!.
Five Eight persevered, recruited old fan/new drummer Mike Rizzi, and released The Good Nurse on then-buzzy emo imprint Deep Elm in 2000. That album's sparse and (for them) slightly experimental vibe, however, further alienated many longtime supporters while failing to draw in Deep Elm's underage throng. Quite a few of the Tampa folks who remembered seeing guitarist/vocalist Mike Mantione naked onstage at the Mug seven years earlier, reciting poetry and refusing to get dressed until he'd made enough money to put gas in the van, assumed they were done.
They're not. It's telling that the group waited six records to name one after itself. The gesture speaks of both renewed commitment and hitting upon a definitive statement, and Five Eight, easily the band's best effort in nearly a decade, lives up to its moniker. Like all Five Eight releases, it wanders occasionally from their trademark compelling amalgam of engagingly off-kilter stadium rock and punky catharsis (for the Foo Fighters-esque "I'm Still Around" and countrified "Bad for Us").
But overall, it's an amazingly solid and cohesive collection, given the combo's somewhat oddball character. As a bonus, many of the disc's best songs — "Criminal," "The Liquor Song," "Square Peg," "Lousy Decision" — have long been the best part of their live set. The whole album sounds live, in fact — wonderfully tight-then-loose guitar overdubs aside — with Mantione's keening, weirdly cadenced melodic wail sounding as immediate and strong as ever.
Five Eight isn't the sound of a potentially great band finally hitting its stride. It's the sound of an always-great band once again unconcerned with anything other than trying to make the album they know they've got in 'em, and succeeding. (www.fiveeight.com) 1/2
War Crime Blues
One of the more egregiously overlooked artists of the '90s, largely due to an ill-fated relationship with Sony, Chris Whitley has issued a pair of "fan-only" discs (available exclusively on the Messenger website) that find him in a threadbare, off-the-cuff setting. It suits him. The fiercely individual purveyor of 21st-century blues can certainly make an unholy racket with just his voice and an acoustic steel guitar. War Crime Blues, made up of mostly new originals, is the more "produced" of the two, featuring a kick-drum for accompaniment and some guitar overdubs. Whitley cryptically ruminates on love, loss, longing, death and, of course, war, although the disc is not a polemic against the Iraq quagmire. Whitley's blues eschews 12-bar structure and other traditional conventions, but it drips with blues spirit, from the exquisite drone of his tunes to the ache in his voice to the percussive buzz of his oft-astonishing guitar work. (That he continues to be a marginalized artist whose music is widely seen as difficult is a constant source of amazement to me.) The bookend disc, Weed, seems more the collectors item for Whitley aficionados; it's a 16-song compendium of songs from his back catalogue that he's recast in solo/acoustic format, recorded live to two-track. They're all engaging renditions, although a few sound borderline half-hearted ("Big Sky Country," "Living with the Law" — both, consequently, from his 1991 debut album). Conversely, his spare turn at "Narcotic Prayer" brings a somber elegance to a song that was a dissonant tour de force on the overlooked masterpiece Din of Ecstasy (1995). To his credit, Chris Whitley has not let the industry beat him down. He keeps creating vital music, even with stop-gap efforts such as these. (www.messengerrecords.com) 1/2
Light of Day EP
Fans of Spain, the now-defunct L.A. slo-core act fronted by one Josh Haden, will notice a difference between projects past and present before even removing Light of Day's shrinkwrap — the cover art. Yes, it's disingenuous to evaluate an album on such superficial grounds, but the handful of us who've followed the slow rise (and amicable demise) of the ethereal pop outfit have grown used to seeing semi-clad, pouty young women on the cover, only vaguely hinting at the lovely simplicity held within. Similarly, the music is a departure from past efforts, forsaking drums for the type of rudimentary synth grooves usually reserved for demos. Which is, consequently, exactly what Light of Day sounds like. Haden, the son of renowned jazz bassist Charlie Haden, is a master of pristine, half-spoken/half-sung lines that sound like heartfelt come-ons, stripping down melodies to their bare essence and revealing to listeners the most basic elements of a great love song. Melodically, this album resembles old slave spirituals, augmented by acoustic guitars and a Wurlitzer, which more than compensate for the drum machine's cold comfort, and Haden's voice — one that rivals Jeff Buckley's in seductiveness but tonally is more reminiscent of Nick Drake's. Although Light of Day's messages sometimes fall dangerously close to the soft rock of guilty-pleasure acts like Air Supply or Michael Franks, it's the delivery that sets it apart. And that kind of pleasure ain't guilty at all. (www.joshhaden.com)
One Soul Now
On their ninth album in a remarkably consistent 18-year career, the Cowboy Junkies leisurely unspool another 10 tracks that hover, float and occasionally sting, disconnected from anything else in contemporary pop. Seldom has a guitarist/songwriter explored the sinister, edgy side of country and played as menacingly as Timmins on the slow burn of "From Hunting Ground to City," the most threatening slice of churning guitar-borne paranoia since Neil Young's "Cortez the Killer." Wrapping his gnarled guitar around Margo's honeyed voice, Michael locks the creeping intensity of "He Will Call You Baby" into a dark, oozing groove that sounds like a killer painstakingly stalking his victim down a rain-swept back street. The accompanying limited edition five-song EP, 'Neath Your Covers, refines the process. It successfully refracts eclectic covers from likely sources such as Townes Van Zant and Young, as well as more oblique ones like The Cure and The Youngbloods, through the morphine-injected, beautiful/frightening Junkie aesthetic.