The Manny Ramirez Effect
A Pair of Surprises From Out of Left Field

Sometimes they just don’t work.

I’ve been trying for two weeks to make my thesis on genetic mutation as it relates to side projects into something readable, and all I’ve ended up with so far is boring, wordy crap. I won’t subject you to it in its current form – I may come back to it later, but there’s a ton of new music headed our way (as you know if you read the stopgap column from last week), and I don’t know when I’ll be able to fit it in.

So for now, here’s the important stuff, stripped of pretentious garbage and distilled for your reading pleasure:

The Raconteurs is Jack White’s new band, and does anyone else think that he should form a musical partnership with Jack Black? I think that would be hilarious, and certainly more successful than his collaboration with Brendan Benson, as evidenced by the first Raconteurs album, Broken Boy Soldiers. I am not a White Stripes fan, but I do like Benson’s work, and I was hoping the new band would combine the best aspects of both.

Instead, the duo (together with Jack Lawrence and Patrick Keeler of the Greenhorns) turned in a tossed-off slab of diverse, yet underbaked rock, with some Zeppelin, some folksy blues, and a dash of melodic pop. I admire the myriad of styles the band tackles here, but they don’t do any of them very well, and at just over half an hour, this feels like a weekend jam session rather than a whole new creation. Benson and White take vocal turns, and in the spirit of free association, they’ve forgotten to truly collaborate at all – there isn’t much here that sounds like a melding of their signature sounds.

More successful is Peeping Tom, which is really just Mike Patton, of Faith No More, Mr. Bungle, Fantomas, Tomahawk and numerous other solo projects. However, Peeping Tom isn’t a solo show – he collaborates here with the likes of Dan the Automator, Kool Keith, Massive Attack and Kid Koala, and the result is a semi-creepy slab of electronic dance-metal. It is Patton’s most accessible work since Faith No More broke up, and it’s worth it just to hear Norah Jones say “motherfucker,” but it falls short of the brilliant insanity of which Patton is capable. The packaging is great, though.

Oddly, the most successful of the three is Gnarls Barkley, which is just way too good to be as popular as it is. Gnarls is soul goofball Cee-Lo Green and producer Danger Mouse, and their debut St. Elsewhere is the perfect combination of their sensibilities. Imagine Marvin Gaye as produced by Fatboy Slim and you have the idea. You’ve heard “Crazy,” but the album goes so many other places, some of them cartoony and some of them strangely moving. It’s not great art, by any means, but it is a fun mutation, a melding of styles that works. For collaborative side projects, I think that’s the best anyone can ask.

So there you go. And now for this week’s real column, which I have dubbed The Manny Ramirez Effect.

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So I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Manny Ramirez play, but I’ll try to encapsulate the experience for you. The Red Sox left fielder is an amazing hitter, and he has so much inborn talent that he manages to get away with a lackadaisical attitude in the field that Sox fans have come to call “Manny being Manny.” Often, it can seem to outside observers that Ramirez isn’t even paying attention, and occasionally he’ll do stupid things like throw the second-out ball into the stands, thinking it’s the third-out ball. Nothing fazes Ramirez, and nothing seems to light a fire under him, either.

But whether intentional or not, Manny’s laissez-faire demeanor causes his opponents to underestimate him all the time. One second he’ll be grinning at fans while the game is in progress, and the next he’ll be hauling ass to the back wall, making a spectacular catch and throwing in to second to hold the runner to a single. And whenever Manny snaps out of his sunny haze and executes a play like that, it takes everyone by surprise, like it came out of… well, left field.

What does this have to do with music? Well, I’m asked all the time where I find out about the bands I listen to, by people who apparently believe that I’m hooked into this secret network of musical insiders that trade in forbidden knowledge. And while I do rely on recommendations and research and tracking things down, spending way too much time and energy in the process, I also happen upon surprises, things I didn’t see coming, but which suddenly make their way to the top of my pile and knock me out.

And that’s the Manny Ramirez Effect – when new, unknown music catches you by surprise.

Case in point. I went to see the Violet Burning a couple of months ago at the Warehouse in Aurora, Illinois. They were opening for Kevin Max, one of the most ridiculous performers you’ll ever see – I walked out about the time he started his poetry readings. But TVB was excellent, as always, slamming through oldies and some awe-inspiring new ones from Drop-Dead, their terrific new record.

Seeing a small show like this can often be a pain – it takes ages for one band to leave the stage and another to set up and start, and I went by myself, so I had no one to talk to during the lag time. So I was sitting there, and I started to notice the music playing over the speakers. Well, that’s not entirely true – as I’ve mentioned before, there’s a part of my brain that is always noticing the music in the background, but there are times when that part smacks around the more conscious parts and says, “Listen to this! You have to hear this!”

This was one of those times. It seems the Violets had brought their own iPods, and they had chosen the music that played between sets. Some music fills a room, but this stuff flooded it – watery, wavery, electronic, organic, trance-like and mesmerizing. I was fully taken in, and I waited a few songs to be sure, but each successive tune was more enveloping than the last. The thought process went a little like this:

Song one: “This is good. I wonder who this is?”

Song two: “Man, this is really good. Will the next one be as good?”

Song three: “Yes, it will. Who does this sound like? Who could this be?”

Song four: “This is awesome. I should know who this is. I’m actually embarrassed that I don’t know who this is.”

Song five: “Okay, that is it. I have to find out who this is.”

So I asked one of the Violets, who was more than happy to tell me. Turns out it was the first full-length album by the Listening, formerly the Rock ‘n’ Roll Worship Circus. I immediately made the connection – Gabriel Wilson, leader of the Circus, contributed heavily to Drop-Dead, as did keyboardist Josiah Sherman and guitarist Chris Greely. I sat back down, satisfied. They kept playing the record between sets, and I got to hear all of it. Had it been on sale that evening, I’d have plunked down my cash then and there.

I had avoided the Rock ‘n’ Roll Worship Circus because, well, just look at their name. The songs I’d heard were average modern rock, with not much to recommend them. I had heard somewhere that the Circus had changed their name and their sound, but I had no idea the change was this drastic or impressive. The Listening is all about mood and moment, and it’s captivating – songs don’t move as much as they slither forward, like an underwater creature. These are songs for darkened corners, and the sound is amazing, full and swirling and midnight black.

“Triple Fascination” is the template – a repetitive drum pattern provides the framework for layers of clean guitars and droning keys, while Wilson sings in a low-key voice, one that provides warmth without breaking the mood. The song that sold me originally is the fifth, “Hosea in C Minor,” a constantly ascending web of despair, with occasional shafts of harmonic light. It’s fantastic. Some will hear the pianos and repeated drum figures and draw a line to Kid A, but Wilson remembers one thing Thom Yorke and company keep forgetting – the melodies. These songs go somewhere, no matter how slowly.

The lyrics are littered with biblical references, which some may find off-putting, but trust that there is nothing here that could be considered church music. The spiritual allusions are juxtaposed with songs like “The Factory,” a tale of criminal arson, for interesting effect. The album concludes with a pair of beauties – “Lovely Red Lights” is a deep submersion of a song, all lovely synths and melodic changes, and “Everything is Nothing” is surprisingly upbeat, pivoting on the line, “Everything is nothing without love.” The electric piano, subtle programmed drums and snaking guitar line are perfect, taking what could have been a throwaway into truly memorable territory.

The Listening is a remarkable record, all the more so for being an independent release. If not for the guys in the Violet Burning, I might never have heard it at all, and instead, it’s vying for my top 10 list this year. That’s a left-field surprise, and one I’m grateful for.

Here’s another: I had almost completely forgotten about this band called The Cat Mary, until Chris L’Etoile reminded me. I borrowed their debut album, Her High, Lonesome Days, from Chris when we were both in school, and I never returned it – it’s a long story that involves an impromptu cleaning and a basement wall, and it’s not all that interesting. But the crux is, I liked the record, and I remembered the band’s name, even though I haven’t heard them in years.

Cut to 2006, and Chris emails me to tell me that the band has a new album. And I’m thinking about it, and wondering just how I would have known about this kind of thing before the internet. How would a band like The Cat Mary, who sounds out of time to begin with and has only made three albums in a decade, get the word out otherwise? I don’t know – I suppose if we didn’t have the internet, we’d have to invent it.

Anyway, the band. The Cat Mary describes their sound as “kitchen-sink Americana,” and that works as well as anything. They play a kind of country-jazz-folk-prog that’s equal parts traditional and inventive, and their songs are little stories, brief radio plays. Their new album is called Postbellum Neighborhood, and I had to look “postbellum” up – it refers to the period just after the Civil War.

I haven’t heard Her High, Lonesome Days in many years, but I don’t remember it being this lively, this jazz-inflected. The album opens with a six-minute epic called “A River, a Dead Mule, A Train…” that leapfrogs styles elegantly. You can’t mistake the thump of an upright bass for anything else, and Ken Dow provides an impeccable, earthy foundation. His brother Kevin on drums adds a surprisingly technical touch to some of these tunes, particularly the opener.

But it’s the voice of leader Andrew Markham that will keep you coming back. It’s the element of the sound I remember most from my first brush with it in the mid-‘90s – he has an even, powerful tone that reminds me of Vince Gill a bit, but it stands on its own. Markham’s lyrics are sometimes surreal, but always enjoyable – “Now, before you invoke your meemaw, I will tell you that I once had me a meemaw too…”

Postbellum is surprisingly diverse as well – the originals include two string-laden instrumentals along with a beautiful ballad (“The Big, Dumb Way”), and the band also includes takes on songs by Tom Waits, Jimmie Rodgers and Jesse Winchester. My only complaint with the album, in fact, is that four of the 11 songs are covers, and another is a poetic interlude. That leaves a scant four new songs and two instrumentals from the mind of Markham, and it’s a mind I’d like to hear more from.

Nevertheless, it’s a great little album, organic and sweet, full of fiddles and steel guitars and real, honest musicianship. This was another out-of-nowhere surprise, and despite the backlog of music I have to listen to, when the quirky strains of “Anniperversary” fade out, I don’t want to do anything but press play again. Postbellum Neighborhood is a welcome return from a band I’d all but forgotten, and I hope they keep going so I can keep my promise to watch them more closely. Thanks to Chris L’Etoile for letting me know about this.

Now, can anyone help me find their second album…?

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Both The Listening and Postbellum Neighborhood are available from CDBaby. Pick ‘em up here:

The Listening.

The Cat Mary.

Next week, Sonic Youth, or something similar.

See you in line Tuesday morning.