Now Hear This: Carolina Chocolate Drops vs. Justin Robinson & The Mary Annettes; Corrosion of Conformity; more!

Carolina Chocolate Drops vs. Justin Robinson & The Mary Annettes


Carolina Chocolate Drops — Leaving Eden (Nonesuch)

Justin Robinson & The Mary Annettes — Bones For Tinder (Five Head Entertainment)

As the relatively unstable product of a broken home, I am for reconciliation at all costs. Sometimes this is a reminder to communicate  —  other times, a sentence to sustain relationships beyond their expiration date. For no good reason, I encourage the bands in my life to do the same, to forgo the indulgent side project, circumvent the love triangles, and to see the greener pastures for what they are.

The news of Justin Robinson’s departure from the Carolina Chocolate Drops was like hearing that my mom was moving into the apartment complex behind our high school all over again. There were so many memories:  the albums, the festivals, the Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album. Fortunately, Justin Robinson’s decision to veer to the symbolic left at the fork in the road yields two distinct offerings  —  Bones for Tinder, the debut LP from Justin Robinson & the Mary Annettes, and Leaving Eden, the fourth studio album by the Drops  —  that both extend the boundaries of what can be done with a banjo in 2012.

The Carolina Chocolate Drops mean a lot of things to a lot of people, and their stringed music ranges from traditional to the anything but. Although multi-instrumentalist Robinson was assumed to have hammered hardest upon the group’s malleable output, the Drops do not crawl back to the fiddler’s convention with his departure. Enter the beat-boxing Adam Matta, whose percussive output ranges from tongue-twisting hambone to lip-smacking boom-bap. Matta is one of three new inductees, alongside New York banjoleer Hubby Jenkins and New Orleans cellist Leyla McCalla. The new recruits pedal more often than steer, and Leaving Eden affirms the presence of Rhiannon Giddens and Dom Flemmons more than it mourns Robinson’s departure.

The breezy simplicity of “Mahalla” recalls the score to a Caribbean Mario Brothers sequel unrealized, and if there was a black Dollywood , the commercials would prominently feature the boot-stomping “Ruby, Are you Mad At Your Man?” Giddens, who recalls Janelle Monae, Norah Jones, and Joni Mitchell at any given moment, lends her finest singing and songwriting to the album’s title track,  which challenges James Taylor’s most sentimental waltzes. Buttressed by gusts of cello and a gentle mist of mandolin, Gidden’s lament, “I am not afraid of that bright glory up above/Dying’s just another way to leave the ones you love,” leaves one staring into the middle distance and, you know, thinking about things.

But while the Carolina Chocolate Drops rarely fake left and move right, Robinson’s debut is a series of wrong turns for the right reasons. If there exists a parcel of common ground between Andre 3000 and John Hartford, Robinson stands confidently upon it, shovel in hand.  The record is dirty, and “Devil’s Teeth” is a danceable confluence of his far-flung influences that showcases the effortless innovation trained musicians rarely allow themselves to make.

On “Vultures,” Robinson’s dissonant declaration, “You’re all I need to get by,” nod succinctly to Tammi Terrell and Mary J. Blige’s trans-generational deliveries of the Motown title. “Thank You Mr. Wright,” with its thrift store harmonium and plucky guitar, pay whimsical tribute to powered flight from above the clouds.

While the Carolina Chocolate Drops have always sounded nice live, from the porch to the Carrboro Arts Center, Robinson’s impressive outing is more fit for the space between your ears. His shade of innovation, more Beefheart than Bela Fleck, exhibits fewer obligations to his catalog than the remaining Drops. The album is dense with sketches (“III Lil’ Babes”) and masterpieces (“Nemesis or Me”), the kind of scrapbook compiled in a fury of creativity, or in the bare-all sweepings of a posthumous release.

Despite their differences, Robinson and the Drops are still two sides of the same coin. By all accounts their separation has appeared amicable, and both factions seem content on pushing the same boulder, albeit up different mountains. A day may come when our children exclaim in disbelief, “Justin Robinson was in the Carolina Chocolate Drops?!” In the meantime we’ll just have to enjoy joint custody of North Carolina’s most industrious community of African-American string-band visionaries. Two Christmases! Two birthdays! Two records! We’re big kids now. We can handle this. —Jon Kirby

Corrosion of Conformity — Corrosion of Conformity (Candlelight)

Despite the title of their new LP, the trio currently carrying the most infamous moniker in Raleigh hard rock is not the definitive Corrosion of Conformity. Defining COC is in many ways antithetical to their identity. Yes, bassist Mike Dean, guitarist Woody Weatherman and drummer Reed Mullin recorded 1985’s Animosity – arguably the band’s best and most recognizable record – but more than a dozen dudes have played in the band during their 30-year-run. As is to be expected, the shifts in membership have led to an equally shifty sonic identity.

They burst forth in 1982 as one of the more ferocious first-wave hardcore bands, creating jagged-riffed chaos behind departed lead singer Eric Eycke. By Animosity they began to shift towards metallic thrash, maintaining breathless intensity, but opting for beefy, strung-out tones and over-the-top vocals that defied the punk aesthetic. In the 90s on through the mid-aughts the band reached their highest commercial peaks with boozy modern rock that paired crusty Metallica-Inc. riffs with swampy, Southern tones. Indeed, the COC catalog takes so many detours that it’s often hard to believe that all the records belong to one band.

It’s incredible, then, how well Corrosion of Conformity – the band’s first record since 2005 –  manages to matriculate and synthesize the various styles that COC has inhabited in the last 30 years. Still, this album is in no way a summary. The trio marauds through their back catalog, collecting trinkets and cobbling them together with new elements. On their first self-titled record, COC eagerly engage their own legend. As with everything they touch, they find new ways to twist and, well, corrode it.

For the first few seconds, it sounds as though COC are content to repeat their recent history. “Psychic Vampire” plods to life on a monstrously over-the-top riff, bass and drums entering slowly and intricately. Amid the build-up, Dean releases one of the most gloriously cliched metal grunts you’ll ever hear. Suddenly, they kick into another gear, and we’re back in the Animosity era, riffs and rhythm crashing about with time-honed intensity. These dynamic shifts of tempo and volume  continue throughout as the band backs off in the verses and then comes roaring back for the choruses. If you weren’t sure which COC to expect, “Psychic Vampire” certainly wouldn’t help you figure it out.

COC continue in this mix-and-match vein for much of the album. “Rat City” roars headlong with hardcore speed and intensity, but its riffs take a trip through garage-bound blues. The “Detroit Rock City”-style call-and-response makes sarcastic inroads into classic rock with Mullin taking the vocal lead. He drives the joke home with an affected croak, allowing each note to percolate fiercely through his sandpaper pipes. “Time of Trials” hinges on an almost sparkling post-punk riff, but COC ground it into the grimiest arrangement on the whole record, Dean’s oppressive bass lines made even more dense by the contrast. “River of Stone” starts as thundering-herd hard rock, somewhere between British blues metal and Savannah sludge, but it meanders into a psyched-out stoner bridge. Weatherman’s ascent from hypnotic wah-wah to grandiose solo testifies to the prowess of his veteran chops.

Still, as with the return of most yesteryear heroes, Corrosion of Conformity is no classic. The trio’s experimental detours sometimes stall, and Dean, while more than adequate as the primary frontman, doesn’t quite have the gravitas to pull them through their failures. Still, COC never lets their legacy trip them up. They’re as irreverent with their own history as they have been with most everything else. After three decades, they still refuse to conform, and that makes Corrosion of Conformity as definitive as any COC album could ever be. —Jordan Lawrence


Baobab — Boabab (Self-released)

For his 14-song debut, Phil Torres gathered: a $150 nylon-string guitar; his interest in mbaqanga and congotronics; keys and synths; mastering software; musical inspiration from the Books, Panda Bear and Dirty Projectors; lyrical inspiration from Cat Stevens; a naturalist’s aesthetic; and his computer. The Durham-based musician’s colorful bursts of the organic and digital stand out for their balance. Acoustic guitar figures circle each other like courting lovers, their ritual dances draped in warm synth textures and layers of overdubbed harmonies. Elsewhere, tribal rhythms conjure island vibes as synth swaths provide an urban grounding. You could be nature-bound or strolling through colorful favelas, but Baobab fits either setting. —JS

Bowerbirds — The Clearing (Dead Oceans)

Upheaval and subsequent renewal hit the Bowerbirds in the lead-up to The Clearing, their larger-than-ever third album. The duo of Phil Moore and Beth Tacular broke off their romantic relationship, Tacular fell mysteriously ill, and they ultimately returned to their little cabin in the Pittsboro woods with new purpose – and new tricks. Darker and more honest, these songs allow death and uncertainty to enter their tranquil folk musings, bolstered by dramatic swells courtesy of strings, Korgs and pianos. Sometimes you have to burn part of a forest down to keep it growing properly. Likewise, Bowerbirds have been rejuvenated and enhanced by their hardship. —JL

Caltrop — ten million years and eight minutes (Holidays For Quince)

If the title to Caltrop’s second LP is a joke, it’s a good one. It’s been four years since the Chapel Hill rock act’s loud and lumbering debut, a relative eternity in today’s download-a-minute music culture. But the pace suits Caltrop, who have refined their epic chops without losing what made their debut work. Tangled prog-ish solos are contorted with sludgy distortion and powered by concussive rhythms during the album’s untamed moments. But Caltrop explores the space between their freak-outs, indulging in heady psych-rock interludes. The result is hard rock with near universal appeal, recommended for Led Zeppelin devotees and Harvey Milk acolytes alike. —JL

Lee Fields — Faithful Man (Truth & Soul)

For five decades, Wilson, N.C.-raised Lee Fields has been linked to James Brown. That’s been a blessing — landing him early-days gigs and rejuvenating his career in the mid-90s funk revival – and an albatross, some dismissing Fields as a cut-rate Brown knock-off. But after the reboot with NYC-based Soul Providers, members of that band later formed the Expressions and collaborated with Fields on two marvelous LPs. Here, he bares his soul about love discovered, lost, and, for the lucky few, rediscovered. From the Gamble and Huff strings, Stax horn fanfares, wah-wah guitars, organ washes, Al Green crooning and Otis Redding pleading, Fields shows he’s anything but a junior Brown. —JS

Free Electric State — Monumental Life (Custom Made Music)

On Free Electric State’s LP debut, 2010’s Caress, David Koslowski and Nick Williams churned dense sheets of noise, adding shoegaze heft to revved-up post-punk momentum as drummer Tony Stiglitz and bassist Shirlé Hale muscled the band underneath the gauze. FES’s follow-up is no departure, but it does amplify its strengths. Stiglitz’s Motorik throb is more insistent, given room to breathe by more dynamic textures. Hale, a nuanced singer able to shade sweet melodies with dark shadows, is granted a brighter spotlight. The hooks are sharper and dig deeper; the dynamics are more pronounced. But even with this more accessible and bigger sound, FES hasn’t sacrificed any of the textural detail or raucous squall that made their debut exciting. —BR

Gross Ghost — Brer Rabbit (Grip Tapes)

Gross Ghost quickly lured an audience with on-the-pop bursts they’d released on a few (no longer available) free-download EPs and a flurry of tight, energetic shows. On their formal debut, Gross Ghost proves the attention was deserved. Like their buds in The Love Language, or contemporaries such as Best Coast or Crystal Stilts, Gross Ghost’s buoyant and driving take on garage rock hits all the hazy highlights without getting lost in a fuzz-fog. But where others are content to give girl-group melodies a glassy-eye drawl, Gross Ghost cuts the gauze with crisp guitar lines and swinging percussion. Instead of sounding like memory-glazed greaser dream-pop, Gross Ghost offers a sharp, alert and relentlessly hooky approach. —BR

Joint D­≠ — Strike Gently (Sorry State)

Joint D­≠­’s debut sounds a lot like another recent Charlotte punk record. Guitarist and singer Nick Goode is also a leader in Brain F­≠­, whose caustically catchy LP Sleep Rough was one of 2011’s best loud records. Strike Gently proves that was no isolated incident. Also featuring members of Yardwork and Great Architect, Joint D­≠­ trades Brain F­­≠’s tenacious hooks for increased brutality. Goode’s riffs trample along gleefully, filling in the gaps between tantric assaults with shrieks of triumphant feedback. The rhythm section opts for brute force, finding the fastest, most forceful way to keep time as Goode snarls with such vigor you can feel the spittle on your eardrums. —JL

Loincloth — Iron Balls of Steel (Southern Lord)

Instrumental metal is a description that usually conjures images of self-serious post-rocksmiths slowly navigating tepid rises and falls in the most allegedly cerebral corners of the metal genre. But as Loincloth proves, this needn’t be true. On its LP debut (following 2003’s four-song demo), the vocals-free trio offers a dynamic and kinetic 40 minutes of infectious, angular riffs and turbulent rhythms. Like Gore — who were crafting brutal and interesting instru-metal in the mid-80s, when Loincloth’s Steve Shelton (drums) and Cary Rowells (bass) were navigating Confessor’s prog-death voyages — Loincloth favors concision over extension and muscle over mind. No matter how much intelligence propels its precise lunges, Loincloth’s Balls deliver quite the bludgeoning. —BR

Lost In The Trees — A Church That Fits Our Needs (Anti-)

The cover for Lost in the Trees new LP features a picture of Ari Picker’s mother. She committed suicide a few years ago, and the songs here find Picker reckoning with her depression, the anguish of her death, and the promise of her afterlife. His mostly abstract words aren’t shy with the details, but they jumble them up, revealing truths in heartbreaking tumbles. The arrangements hold serve, building from the orchestral folk of the band’s past into lush and gloomy art rock where string parts refract off of found sounds, echoing vocals and distorted guitars. It’s beautiful and unsettling, a fitting tribute and a moving listen. —JL

Museum Mouth — Sexy But Not Happy (self-released)

Wilmington’s Museum Mouth ups both the distortion and the emotional intensity on their second, purposefully sophomoric LP. Colorful walls of shoegazed fuzz pile onto their pop-punk riffs, accentuating the bittersweet tension in their melodies and giving these simple rock songs an added dimension to explore. Singer Karl Kuehn revels in this lo-fi setting, allowing his throaty moan to ooze through the noise and merge powerfully with the rest of the record’s blown-out tones. The narratives fit the aesthetic, tackling complicated heartache with the uninhibited passion of a teenager. Trivial concerns? Sure. But Museum Mouth makes them feel like so much more. —JL

Pan — These Are the Things I Love and I Want to Share Them with You (Post-Echo)

Little in the instrumental rock world hasn’t been said already, so what matters is the conviction a band brings to their particular corner of the post-rock. For this Columbia quartet, the enthusiasm evident in the title courses through these dozen tracks like life blood. Pan relies more on repetitive riffs done at high RPM (“Joe Frazier”) and Southern-flavored guitar melodies (“Helen & Francis”) than most instrumental-rock acts, and when they add the gang-vocals, like on LP highlight “John From New York,” the sense of elation takes on a triumphant sheen. These are conquering heroes returned from epic voyages and bearing the bounty of their adventures told in song. —JS

Lindsey Ryan — The Divers (self-released)

Charlotte’s Lindsey Ryan is coaxed from her “withdrawn little weirdo songwriter tree” (her debut came out in 2004) and surrounded by some of the city’s premier musicians here to remarkable effect. Over 10 Southern-tinged vignettes about love and loss, Ryan’s poems (it’s okay, she’s got a masters in poetry) are embedded in plush organ textures and guitar reverb, cello and pedal steel, while brushed drums and double-bass nudge elegant tempos along. Ryan’s voice, part Kate Bush and part Karen Peris, fills these ballads and twangy shuffles with striking images  —  “starlings in their little velvet gowns,” “morning comes, undoes Orion’s buckle” — that stick long after her indigo-hued block chords drift into the ether. —JS

Stripmines — Crimes of Dispassion (Sorry State)

Stripmines vocalist Matt LaVallee wrote the lyrics here in the midst of personal crises, and wound up penning an album-length violent protest against personal stasis, corrupt powers and complacent victims. His vicious bark doesn’t pull any punches in delivery, either. But the thematic grist is only one component of this supremely intense platter. Packed with sudden stops, forceful shifts and unexpected asides, the songs’ arrangements serve their singer’s fury well. The production gives this new batch a fuller, more defined sound than the dry sound of the band’s EP, making these tumultuous tunes sound outright cataclysmic. Hardcore doesn’t hit much harder than this. —BR

Whatever Brains — Whatever Brains (Sorry State)

Their first long-player having been released only last summer, Whatever Brains served up their second in short-order. This slightly shorter album is a more concentrated effort than its predecessor. Instead of serving a varied and daring assortment of styles, the band is intent on strengthening its bent and tangled guitar melodies and streamlining the scabrous post-punk they’ve ridden to regional acclaim. The trade-off does mean that LP No. 2 loses some irreverence and playfulness, but the more focused approach serves the Brains well, overall. Their strength has always been in toeing the line between snotty, confrontational post-punk and infectious pop, and at this, their latest LP excels. —BR

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