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North Bay Noise

A handful of local albums

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Dan Imhoff, 'Agraria'

Most know Dan Imhoff for his work as an author and environmental advocate, writing on issues of biodiversity, farm bills and industrial animal factories. What people might not know is that Imhoff is a lifelong musician, performing both solo and with his band Cahoots. In 2010, after producing a 450-page critique of factory farming, he took a sabbatical to the Berklee College of Music in Boston and took classes in ear training and composition. Agraria features songs written during this musical sojourn. The album is the perfect soundtrack for a summer on a Sonoma County farm, complete with fiddle-fueled songs for a Friday-night barn dance, as well as pensive tunes made for sunset-watching in an apple orchard. The album features lap steel guitar and backing vocals from Landpaths executive director Craig Anderson, pedal steel from local whiz Josh Yenne, fiddle from the Brothers Comatose's Philip Brezina and many others. Produced at Prairie Sun studios, Agraria offers a glimpse of how to successfully channel political passion into art.—L.C.

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Dave Haskell Group, 'Pivot Point'

Pivot Point, the latest album by jazz guitarist Dave Haskell, is a little strange at first, like a hotel shower. The lack of repetition in rhythm and melody is uncustomary, but after a few minutes, one's mindset undergoes a complete shift, and the music feels totally normal—like it's been this way all along. The instrumental numbers are inspired, in particular "For Barack," but it's up to the listener to interpret the meaning. Piano, keyboards, bass and drums round out the sound, with guests accompanying the four core members on some tracks. Haskell's shredding is as delicate as it is powerful, and he also invites guitarist Robben Ford to add his flavor on a couple tracks for a sound more like a duet than a duel.—N.G.

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The Ruminators, 'Call Me Out of Your Mind'

If Warren Zevon had moved to Athens, Ga., in 1985, he'd have made an album like this: smart, emotional and propelled by energy without relying on distorted guitars. Not to say Call Me Out of Your Mind is fast, either—"Something's Wrong with My Baby" is a beautiful ballad sung by Jennifer Goudeau—but the songs, penned and sung half the time by frontman Greg Scherer, contain that bubbling-just-under-the-surface substance that's made the band a Sonoma County favorite since forming in 1989. Recorded by the Last Record Store's Doug Jayne with guitarist and longtime local engineer Allen Sudduth, and mastered at Prairie Sun, the sonic quality is sharp enough to capture every swampy organ and bass lick in the near-psychedelic "Too Soon to Say" (with tasteful organ by Ron Stinnett) and the classic sound of a hard guitar pick-hitting roundwound strings at the beginning of "Drifting in the Wind" and the title track.—G.M.

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Spends Quality, 'Time Peace'

CFO Recordings rose out of the popular Sonicbloom hip-hop collective with the vision of label exec and founding member Spencer Williams, who also MCs under the moniker Spends Quality. On Time Peace, one of a trifecta of albums released by CFO in 2013, Williams raps over smooth, summertime beats produced by Mr. Tay. Keeping with Sonicbloom's positive hip-hop vibe, this album is the perfect soundtrack for barbecues and lounging by the Russian River, all friends, smiles and good intentions. Maybe it's all that Sonoma County sunshine, but Spends Quality avoids the gritty subject matter of most rap albums in favor of a celebration of love and life. "I ain't flamboyant, I might blend in" Williams raps on "'Til the Songs Done," but he's wrong: this is one of the stand-out releases in the North Bay for 2013.—L.C.

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Spends Quality, 'Flight Music'

Spends Quality, the bearded, earnest-looking rapper behind CFO Recordings, is a happy guy. Flight Music is full of good vibes and counted blessings and even the one track that explores darker material, "Sad Day," circles a line about positive thinking. His bio touts stages shared with Blackalicious and Lyrics Born, and the comparisons fit—this is a guy who probably doesn't use the term "conscious" to mean "alive and breathing." Still, like the rappers he emulates, SQ plays with enough wonky sounds and rhymes to subvert his own wide-eyed sincerity—there are tinny cruising beats reminiscent of Snoop's L.A. (before he, too, became conscious) and cheesy sax strains that are pure Oakland all-night buffet. In his own words, "Spends Quality mixes soulfulness with intellect in a golden pimp cup."—R.D.

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John Courage and the Great Plains, 'Gems'

Looking like a Georgia O' Keeffe painting gone glam, the crystal-encrusted cow's skull on the cover of Gems is a fitting symbol for a band in transition. On songs like "Feel Like the Only," the three-piece—featuring John Courage (John Palmer) on guitar and vocals, Francesco Catania on bass and Dan Ford on drums—have left behind dark country music for a bass-driven rock sound that's more Roxy Music than Lucinda Williams. "It's Different" takes this new direction all the way to the bank with a deep, winding sax solo that can only be described as "smooth" (or, if you want to go by the band's Facebook genre, "sad disco"). Gems, give or take a couple of inconsistent moments, only solidifies the group's standing as one of the North Bay's biggest talents.—L.C.

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Che Prasad, 'Shiva Me Timbers'

Don't be misguided by this album's cover art, which makes the thing look like a yoga class soundtrack or a DJ Cheb i Sabbah CD. Che Prasad is a San Anselmo–based songwriter and singer in the Americana tradition, evidenced by the opening track "Early Checkout," a story about dusty parking lots, cheap hotels and life on the road. ("Another Show" continues this type of folklore.) The cover's four-armed Shiva figure and quasi-Hindi script font likely nod to "Shadows from the East"—the album's sitar-heavy centerpiece about Prasad's American mother and Indian father—which contains an unexpected mid-song rap. Prasad's got an off-kilter sense of humor, that's for sure, and evokes John Prine's goofier moments from time to time. He's also able to alter his voice (see the straight-up Tom Waits impersonation of "Take Me to Confession") and play just about any instrument.—G.M.

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