Cool Spins

Robin Danar Altered States (Shanachie) Though this bears the name of well-traveled engineer/producer/live sound mixer Danar, he is not the artist per

Robin Danar

Altered States (Shanachie)

Though this bears the name of well-traveled engineer/producer/live sound mixer Danar, he is not the artist per se; rather, he is the architect and producer of an amazing aural adventure he calls “sonic revisions for the soundtrack of a dream,” a compilation of 13 diverse tracks he recorded by mostly up-and-coming L.A.-based artists performing a wide range of deconstructed/reconstructed cover tunes. So here's Inara George (of The Bird & The Bee) giving a modern folk slant to Johnny Mathis' signature tune, “Chances Are”; Rachel Yamagata brilliantly carrying the Stones' underrated 1967 gem “2000 Light Years From Home” firmly into the 21st century; Jim Bianco (who is new to me) giving a gruff Tom Waits-ish treatment to the Talking Heads' “Life During Wartime,” really bringing the lyrics to the foreground; Quincy Coleman (again, new to me) giving a harmony-heavy '40s vocal feel to one of my favorite semi-obscure Pink Floyd songs, “Fearless”; Blue Nile's Paul Buchanan making The Pretenders' “Message of Love” completely his own; Julianna Raye transforming Dr. John's “Such a Night” into a charming ukulele-propelled folk number; and so on. Jessica Hoop's “Yell” is one of just two originals — it's a wonderful tune that makes me want to check out her own recently released album. Despite the many styles represented, there's definitely a unifying aesthetic: Danar puts lots of space around the vocals and instruments, and keeps the arrangements spare and classy, with nice blends of electronics and beautifully recorded electric and acoustic guitars. This is a perfect addition to the age of mix tapes and iPods set on Shuffle.

PLAY: Must Play
Message of Love

PLAY: Must Play

Produced and engineered by Danar in a whole bunch of home studios, living rooms, etc. Mastering: Michael Fossenkemper and Domenick Maita.
Blair Jackson

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Otis Taylor

Recapturing the Banjo (Telarc)

David Weissman's liner notes for the new Otis Taylor acoustic album, Recapturing the Banjo, offer a history of the banjo: its origins in Africa, integration into the jazz and mountain music of the American South, its denigration on minstrel show stages and on into the folk revival that began in the 1950s. Taylor's aim with this album is to reclaim the banjo's true African-American heritage by bringing it forward with a collection of mostly original songs rooted in modern blues. He's joined by some of today's most soulful blues artists, including Keb' Mo' and Alvin Youngblood Hart — an impressive amount of talent to squeeze onto one CD. This thoughtful package resurrects an “old-time” instrument with great respect and some great new music.

PLAY: Must Play
Ran So Hard the Sun Went Down

Producer: Taylor. Engineers: Matt Sandoski and Mark Johnson. Studios: Immersive Studios (Boulder, Colo.) and StuStu Studio (L.A.). Mastering: David Glasser/Airshow (Boulder, Colo.).
Barbara Schultz

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Barry Adamson

Back to the Cat (Central Control)

When I close my eyes and listen to Barry Adamson's seventh release, Back to the Cat, I imagine a predatory feline skulking behind empty crates in a very dimly lit back alley. Adamson's smokey vocals slither around a soulful, melodic brass line in the opening number, “The Beaten Side of Town.” But there's more to Adamson (a founding member and bassist of Magazine and Nick Cave's Bad Seeds) than channeling Barry White. He deftly fuses fuzzed guitars with blaring trombone lines, or adds a bit of '70s funk to a head-bobbing hi-hat downbeat. There are also hints of Adamson's film composing work in such tracks as “Shadow of a Death Hotel,” which would be a great addition to any film noir's film soundtrack. However, while you're shaking yourself up a martini, skip over “Straight ‘Til Sunrise” — it's a bit too much like Bill Murray's SNL “Star Wars” lounge singer skit for my taste.

PLAY: Must Play
The Beaten Side of Town

PLAY: Must Play
Shadow of a Death Hotel

Producer: Adamson. Full production credits unavailable as of press time.
Sarah Benzuly

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Oracular Spectacular (Red Ink/Columbia)

Not being familiar with MGMT (pronounced “management”) until now, it's hard to tell exactly how much of the sonic wonderland this East Coast duo — Andrew Van Wyngarden and Ben Goldwasser — has created is theirs, and how much of it is the work of the always intriguing and innovative producer Dave Fridmann (of Flaming Lips fame). No matter. Marvelously retro but still unmistakably contempo, it's a pastiche of analog synths, electronically altered vocals and drum tracks, off-kilter harmonies and irresistible hooks, all put together in novel, unpredictable ways. The occasional riff or electronic bass line sounds familiar — is that copped from Dwight Twilley? Is that from The Eurythmics? — but it's clever theft. Where else can you hear updated raga-rock and Low-era Bowie synths on the same disc? I love these guys!

Producers: Dave Fridmann, MGMT. Engineer/mixer: Fridmann. Studios: Tarbox Road (Cassadaga, N.Y.), Context (Brooklyn, N.Y.). Mastering: Greg Calbi/Sterling (New York City).
Blair Jackson

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Paul Manousos

Common Thread (Self-Released)

Surely there's room on this weary old planet for one more talented rock 'n' roll songwriter. Produced by Steve Fisk (Nirvana, Soundgarden, Screaming Trees), Paul Manousos' new nine-song CD applies any old-school recording technique that works to making a great-for-2008 collection of cool rock tunes. His strong, distinctive lead vocals positively shimmer on “Don't Cry,” while the drums ring through with a satisfying, thudding crispness. In “Spell I'm Under,” dig the hard-panned percussion touches that scrape softly under the intentionally unsettling chorus. The slow “Silver Wings” somehow brings the playing style and recording techniques of the '50s fully up to speed for our millennium. And the emotional mover “Real World,” with its winding six-string layers, just might send chills up your spine; a real treat for guitar lovers.

Producer/mixer: Fisk. Recording studio: Tiny Telephone (San Francisco). Mixing studio: Philosophy of the World (Seattle). Mastering: Ed Brooks/RFI (Seattle).
David Weiss