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+ Svalastog - Woodwork
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+ Camille - Le Fil
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+ Chris Thile - How To Grow A Woman From The Ground
+ Brad Mehldau - Live in Japan
+ M Ward - Post-War
+ Various Artists - Touch 25
+ The Mountain Goats - Get Lonely
+ The White Birch - Come Up For Air
+ Camera Obscura - Let's Get Out of This Country
+ Coachwhips - Double Death
+ Various Artists - Tibetan And Bhutanese Instrumental And Folk Music, Volume 2
+ Giuseppe Ielasi - Giuseppe Ielasi
+ Cex - Actual Fucking
+ Sufjan Stevens - The Avalanche
+ Leafcutter John - The Forest And The Sea
+ Carla Bozulich - Evangelista
+ Barbara Morgenstern - The Grass Is Always Greener
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+ Peaches - Impeach My Bush
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+ The Court & Spark - Hearts
+ TV On The Radio - Return To Cookie Mountain
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+ Jenny Wilson - Love And Youth
+ Asobi Seksu - Citrus
+ Marsen Jules - Les Fleurs
+ The Moore Brothers - Murdered By The Moore Brothers
+ Regina Spektor - Begin To Hope
+ The 1900s - Plume Delivery EP
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+ Function - The Secret Miracle Fountain
+ Sonic Youth - Rather Ripped
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+ Boris - Pink
+ Deadboy And The Elephantmen - We Are Night Sky
+ Glissandro 70 - Glissandro 70
+ Calexico - Garden Ruin (Review #2)
+ Calexico - Garden Ruin (Review #1)
+ The Flaming Lips - At War With The Mystics
+ The Glass Family - Sleep Inside This Wheel
+ Various Artists - Songs For Sixty Five Roses
+ The Fiery Furnaces - Bitter Tea
+ Motorpsycho - Black Hole/Blank Canvas
+ The Red Krayola - Introduction
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+ Sondre Lerche And The Faces Down Quartet - Duper Sessions
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Sunburned Hand Of The Man
Rare Wood
Spirit Of Orr

Up to this point, the musical output of Sunburned Hand of the Man has been expansive, but also elusive. This collective of New England improvisers has self-released at least nine CD-Rs, with several limited-run LPs coming out in the past two years and going quickly out of print. A cover story last year in the British music magazine The Wire, placing Sunburned Hand at the center of a loose movement of like-minded souls including the Charalambides, Tower Recordings and No Neck Blues Band, raised the band's profile to a level not usually achieved with such an ephemeral catalog — the number of people who had heard of them likely dwarfed the number who had actually heard them.

So now comes Rare Wood, their first honest-to-goodness Compact Disc, on Massachusetts' Spirit of Orr label. And unfortunately, it turns out not to be a very good place to start listening to them. Compared with the sludgy, woozy grooves, chugging Krautrock space jamz and skull-scraping chants of past albums like Jaybird and Headdress, Rare Wood starts out too shapeless and ends up too conventional.

At their best, SHOTM are original and exhilarating — a musical hive mind that, more often than not, can hit a certain sweet spot and take things right through the roof. This usually involves a nasty rhythm pattern, billowing clouds of electric atmosphere, murky guitar, and mounds of echo. The Grifters meet Can for a peyote-fueled bonfire jam session — that's Jaybird. Unusual instrumentation like grass whistles, shakers, and buzzy electronic gear swarms around the main structure, coalescing into part of the song or working against it before fading away or starting something new. Drone segments sound like Native American chanting, or a Spacemen 3 outtake, or both. The music of Sunburned Hand can be truly ecstatic.

Rare Wood is just not quite there. To be fair, some of their other albums aren't, either, but that doesn't make them throwouts — they have their moments. Plenty of other bands trying to do this stuff are completely unlistenable, not sporadically amazing. But, mainly because Sunburned Hand of the Man have set the bar pretty high for themselves, Rare Wood is disappointing.

The disc has better fidelity than their previous stuff, but the downside is some questionable mixing. Much of the album is drenched with vocals that can best be described as a demented pirate with a megaphone and an echo pedal: "Sunnnburrrned Hannnnd of th' Maaaannnnn! Raarrrrrrggh!" Instead of meshing with the instruments and ratcheting up the trippiness, as happens on Headdress, the singing here feels disruptive; it sounds aggressive, and aggressively weird, and some of the music's details get steamrolled.

The band's quieter songs, typically, are atmospheric and tense, but Rare Wood's second track, "Gyp Hawkin'" seems aimless, as if the members who weren't on percussion at the time were deciding what to do next. The album hits its peak at the end of "Camel Backwards," when the reverberating words of the story-song begin to warp and swirl until they sound like a theremin, or like the 13th Floor Elevators' creepy electric jug. Drawn-out trumpet notes slide back and forth across the face of the track until the strands and rhythms start to fight and get tangled. Things stay on track for a while on the nearly 14-minute "Glass Boot," but the climax is a somewhat by-the-numbers psych-jam — my gut says "This shit is on fire!" but my head can't quite get behind it. On the fifth and final track, the country-folk picking of "Buried Treasure" cleans the slate.

Bottom line, if this sounds like it's up your alley, sell some plasma or swap a kidney to get a copy of Jaybird and go from there. The hardcore fans have probably already bought and devoured Rare Wood, but for the merely curious, it's a difficult album to crack.

by Dave Renard

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