Waste of Time
In an unexpected treat for Central Texas music lovers, songwriter Freedy Johnston popped up in Austin last week for not one but two live shows, one acoustic and one with a band. Unexpected, because Johnston hasn’t put new songs on a disc since 2001, and hasn’t toured these parts in ages — but there he was, groggy from Dramamine, singing “This Perfect World,” and spreading the word about a new micro-label album of covers called My Favorite Waste of Time (Singing Magnet Records).
The record, sold at freedyjohnston.com, offers gems ranging from Burt Bacharach and Paul McCartney to Cole Porter, but the big treat last week was Johnston’s take on the perfectly chosen Matthew Sweet tune “I’ve Been Waiting.” (The arrangement on the album works fine, but the song was even better as a solo number.)
Sweet has an album of his own out later this month, Sunshine Lies (Shout! Factory) — another case of a brilliant ’90s songwriter who has spent most of this decade out of the spotlight. Lies makes you wonder why: Though it ain’t Girlfriend (what is?), it offers the kind of big, brash power pop that had fans greeting Sweet as a retro-prophet once upon a time. From the sneer of “Flying” and a bittersweet title track to the buoyant “Let’s Love” (okay, that last one could be a cut from Girlfriend ...), it catches an artist who may have gotten shy but can still write hummable choruses in his sleep.
Sweet’s songs may distill the sun’s very rays, but some folks need actual dance music to get them through the summer heat. To them I offer the remix-friendly Santogold, whose self-titled debut (Downtown Records) bass-bounces through a mélange of styles that reaches back to ska and dub and forward to electro but never becomes incoherent. Singer Santi White evokes left-and-right comparisons to M.I.A., and they’re warranted — the rapid-fire boasts on “Creator” and overall world-falling-down-ness of the disc’s sci-fi beats make them inevitable — but she’s no copycat: the two artists have overlapping creative teams (like producer Diplo), but White pulls from pop corners M.I.A. isn’t yet exploring, as demonstrated in the Siouxsie Sioux vocals on tunes like “My Superman” and the “Wave of Mutilation” drums beneath “I’m a Lady.” Oddly, despite those ’80s ingredients and others, the record as a whole sounds very much like 2008.
The summer’s other bit of much-buzzed, self-titled indie disco, Hercules and Love Affair (Mute U.S.), aims more explicitly at the dance floor but is made addictive by its least clubby element: The wounded, delicate voice of Antony Hegarty (lead singer of Antony and the Johnsons), whose vocal on disc opener “Time Will” gets chopped and repeated (“I cannot hold/hold/hold/hold a half a life / I cannot be/be/be/be a half a wife”) into a lonely but infectious prayer. From that haunting track, the group moves into “Fifth of Beethoven”-style disco strings and more conventional but perfectly crafted tracks like “You Belong” and the cowbell-rocking “Blind,” but it never gets far from lyrical or melodic content tying it firmly to the subgenre of dance music that channels synthetic sounds into therapy for deeply human emotions.
Charles Wright & the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band
Finally, Rhino Handmade has unearthed some ass-shaking music made explicitly for summer in the city: Two double-disc releases from Charles Wright & the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band gather live performances and unedited jams from the mostly instro group that gave us “Express Yourself.” The first, Puckey Puckey, showcases grooves so everlasting that they’re not recommended as a soundtrack for late-night highway driving (their repetitiveness almost rocked me to sleep a few weeks back), but Live at the Haunted House breaks things up more, catching the outfit as it puts a West Coast spin on James Brown (“Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag”), Gladys Knight & the Pips (“Come See About Me”) and “Mustang Sally.” •