You'd think Tele-master Mike Stern would be overdoing it by bringing two other guitar giants onboard his new album, Play. On his own, Stern sounds like two guitarists, what with his lightning-quick phrasing and implied harmonic sense. So to add modern-jazz legends like John Scofield and Bill Frisell to the vat—well, isn't that like trying to stuff 5 pounds of chocolate into a 3-pound bag? No, first because all three guitarists never play on the same track; second, when either Scofield or Frisell takes a solo after Stern, it's not a clash but more like a challenge of the titans, each goading the other to blow like a condemned man. The title track is a smoldering minor-blues tune that gives both Stern and Scofield room to stretch out and rip over familiar changes. Scofield also displays his dark, East Coast aggression while at bat, his slightly dirtier sound augmenting Stern's chorused, bumblebee speed-riffing. "All Heart" is a mood-altering ballad in which Frisell lays down a splendorous backdrop of chord color, upon which Stern turns his soul inside-out, making every note a teardrop alongside Bob Malach's ruling tenor sax. For a get-down funk-o-rama, there's "Link," on which Stern shreds at full throttle over an incredible bootie-wiggling groove. What I thought would be too many roosters in the hen house turned out to be a beautiful meeting of riffs within the context of Stern's freeform compositions. Stern reaches new Tele heights here—with a little help from his friends—while still exploring dissonant harmonies and retaining his melodic aptitude among a hail of bulleted notes. (CJ Bahnsen)
What would you get if Natalie Merchant had a bluesier, more bass-driven band behind her? And she were a skateboarder? The answer would probably be New Mexico's Lowdog, whose new album, Tiny Quivers, is out on Tortilla Records, an Irvine-based indie. Like Merchant, Lowdog singer Monica Mojica has one of those resonant, soulful voices that seem to permeate every inch of the bandwidth. Unlike Merchant, though, she's got a lot of attitude—this album rips pro-lifers a new one ("RU4it?") and then resonates with a sense of loss so palpable that it's painful ("Tula Rosa" and "Supergrrll"). Throughout, it's marked by a tight, full, almost dense instrumental sound laden with heavy guitar (P.J. Harvey heavy, not Ratt heavy). In a lot of places, the tight bass lines are the only thing between this ethereal mosaic and what would otherwise become stoner rock; in others, like the whimsical "Pixies," the earthiness is all there. We don't know for certain if any of them surf or skate, although the lyrics (which mention San Onofre and Killer Dana) and the liner notes (which thank "the surfers and the skaters of the world") seem to indicate so. But even if that's not true—doesn't everyone want to be a surfer these days?—we rode this album for days, and it never once munched. (Victor D. Infante)
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Available in select stores and through www.lowdog.com.