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Posts Tagged ‘Americana’
Treasa Levasseur, Low Fidelity
Every so often—and not so often, really—a really special recording comes across my desk. Treasa Levasseur’s second disc has been out in her native Canada for a couple of years but is just now about to get a US release, and if we didn’t know we needed a true soul music revival, now we do. Low Fidelity is an excellent combination of smooth, soulful grooves, bluesy riffage, and ballsy singing and attitude, all melded together with pointed and (above all) fun songwriting.
Its ten tracks, almost all originals, draw on many of soul’s flavors: Aretha-style ballads (“Rest of the Ride”), piano-heavy Motown (the title track), Philly soul (“Talk to Me Babe”), Buddy Guy-style minor-key blues (“Good Ones Never Share”), gospel (“Amen”), even a bit of Sade-type gentle jazzy funk (“Truth Will Set You Free”). My favorite might be the New Orleans-y “Big Fat Mouth,” but there’s no weak link on the album. And while the above description might suggest a dilettantish collection of distinct styles, that’s not at all what this is. Levasseur’s powerful but crafty sensibility as a singer and songwriter shines steadily throughout this solid through-and-through album.
The Problems, Powder Blue Bone
Urban folk-rock meets rootsy Americana on The Problems’ fine new disc, with Frank Caiafa’s gravelly grey baritone vocals floating over beds of steady drums (courtesy of the excellent Barbara Corless), plinking banjo, guitars, and sundries. A variety of feels, including driving rock (“Damage Done”), are tied together by an the overall easygoing attitude established by Caiafa’s laid-back singing, even on more energetic tracks like “The Other One” and “Together.” The latter songs feel a bit like Steve Earle in one of his happy moods, or maybe John Prine on speed. And then there’s the uncharacteristically dramatic, Dire Straits-like “Walk Under Ladders.” On some songs you have to lean in if you want to make out the lyrics, but that’s quite all right—the mixture of grit and sweetness is what sets The Problems apart.
Lisa Brigantino, Wonder Wheel
Lisa Brigantino is what you’d call a complete musician—a superb multi-instrumentalist, singer-songwriter, and not least, rocker. Listen to the pounding guitars and odd time signatures of “Go and Find It” and you won’t be at all surprised to learn that she used to be part of the all-female tribute band Lez Zeppelin, but she can rock out with just voice and acoustic guitar too, as in “Used To Be a House,” the most intense track on her new disc. “Aqualung”-like, it paints an affecting picture of homelessness.
The Dixie Chicks meet Simon and Garfunkel in the angelic harmonies of “Sarah,” while “A Little Sympathy” recalls melodic 1970’s pop-rock. Key word: “melodic.” Brigantino brings to her songwriting that real sense of melody that so many putative writers lack, whether it’s on a softie, like the folksy “Those Days” and the lovely “Light of Your Face,” or in more out-there fare like “I Gotta Find Me Somethin’,” where Dixieland meets the Andrews Sisters. The second half of the disc has one or two too many confessional ballads for my taste, but I think that’s just because the rockers make me want a couple more rockers.
Originally published as “Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Levasseur, The Problems, Lisa Brigantino” at Blogcritics.
Anaïs Mitchell, Hadestown: A Folk Opera
There's a good measure of well-made, melodic creep-folk on this concept album, and the alternately sprightly and moody production by Todd Sickafoose shows it to advantage. But the concept is stretched too thin; there's not enough here to justify the production's length of nearly an hour (at least not on disc; it's based on a live show which no doubt benefitted from visuals).
With the sturdy help of guests like Ani DiFranco, Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, and the fiesty Ben Knox Miller of The Low Anthem (along with the painfully tired-sounding Greg Brown, who is less effective), Mitchell winds her way through a retelling of the Orpheus myth, and the album is worth getting hold of for its best numbers, which are very good indeed, like "Wedding Song," "Way Down Hadestown," the irresistible "When the Chips Are Down," and the intense "Why We Build the Wall," in which Brown's weathered voice is nicely balanced by glowing group response vocals.
Kate Tucker, White Horses
Kate Tucker's airy vocals drift on warm beds of arpeggiated guitars and gently throbbing organ, all with plenty of reverb. With a touch of the prettified honesty of Sara McLachlan, a measure of the insistent glitter of Blondie, a tiny touch of twang, and a backbone of plainspoken, often drony mid-tempo songs, this is a nice disc for a hazy summer evening. There's nothing original here, but it has what's more important: a soulful sincerity that melds just right with its pensive sound.
Mark Bates, Down the Narrow
Call it Americana for lack of a better word; what Mark Bates makes is slow-rolling, emotional, but light-footed roots music a la The Band. The spare, tight arrangements keep the focus where it belongs: on Bates' gripping songs, from the easy piano-pop of "Clean Through" and the jaunty Dixieland shuffle of "Death Sucks" to the ghostly sigh of "Go On" and the weary cover of Townes Van Zandt's "Flyin' Shoes."
The keening minor-key wail of "Forbidden Love" contrasts with the funny blues of "Daisy": "We got a son, his name is Neville / He's got red hair, looks like the Devil / He's rotten to the core, how can you blame him / His mother's a whore." (Trust me, it's funny, not bitter.) The intense "Forbidden Love" and the aching "A Drunkard's Holiday" are two more highlights.
The humorous situations of some of the songs, like "Daisy," perk up the slow overall pace. I highly recommend this disc for those who appreciate good songs and don't need to be hit over the head with loud hammers and frantic tempos.
Butch Walker & the Black Widows, I Liked It Better When You Had No Heart
Hearing a few tracks off this disc is what got me to go to Butch Walker's recent show at Webster Hall. (Well, to be honest, so did his straight-up, excellent cover of Taylor Swift's "You Belong With Me," which is not included, but which you can hear here.) Now, listening the whole disc, I am not disappointed. Walker has assimilated just about every kind of rock, pop, and roots music into his repertoire of original, accessible, perfectly constructed tunes. The album is a joyous celebration of music—the craft of making it, and the somatic, emotional, and cultural connections that come of doing it really well.
Originally published as “Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Mitchell, Tucker, Bates, Walker” on Blogcritics.
David Olney's been knocking around since the '70s; the difference is that now there's a comfortable label to apply to his alternately scrappy and lyrical sound. "Americana" was invented for this kind of stuff. His wizened baritone can rock ("Train Wreck") and soothe ("Red Tail Hawk"): "Where my legs go/I will follow/Where the wind blows/I don't care/As long as I know/That you love me/Wherever I go/You'll be there." Simple tiles like this build colorful mosaics of hard-earned knowledge transformed into art that's solemn, celebratory, and sometime playful too, as in the '50s-rock-style "Little Sparrow," about—unexpectedly—Edith Piaf.
Olney sounds tired in some of the songs, his voice pulling away; one wonders if it's done on purpose to draw the listener in. The laid-back sound certainly pays off in "I've Got a Lot On My Mind," where a besotted "lazy so-and-so" explodes into an exuberant scat—all he can produce in light of the "beauty and the power and the danger" of his inamorata.
By contrast, in the gently rolling "Mister Vermeer," contemplating an image of "Girl with a Pearl Earring" inspires the singer to verbalize: "I could rule the world/If that look were meant for me." He talks the verses, Townes Van Zandt-style, as if no melody could match the beauty of the painted image, as perhaps none can. Together with the sweetest song about an armed train robbery that's probably ever been conceived, "Covington Girl," it forms the warm nucleus of this 13-song disc.
Highlights of the second half include the bluesy grumble "Way Down Deep," with its braying horns and melodic echo of the Beatles' "Helter Skelter"; Olney's droopy, roughened take on the Flamingos' undying "I Only Have Eyes for You"; and the homey, comely love song that closes the CD. But pretty much every track here has its charms. Olney and his main co-writer, John Hadley, have felt-tipped a subtle new entry into the Great American/Americana Songbook.
Music Review: Jason & the Scorchers – Halcyon TimesJason & the Scorchers don't have to look back; they've been the genuine article since the early 1980's, and have the Americana Music Association's Lifetime Achievement Award to prove it. Opening with a half-crazed two-step about a "moonshine guy in a six-pack world," their new disc – their first of new material since 1996, hard to believe as that may be – barrels through the glorious clichés of country-rock like they weren't clichés at all.
Backed by a crack new rhythm section, founding Scorchers Jason Ringenberg and Warner E. Hodges pile layer upon layer of American dreams and nightmares. The wonderful "Beat on the Mountain" speaks of striking miners: "I beat on the mountain/but the mountain don't say a thing." "Mona Lee" hollers like an army of Chuck Berrys, and the band's sense of humor shines in "Fear Not Gear Rot" with its exaggerated freight-train twang and playful lyrics. "Mother of Greed" tangily evokes the immigrant experience and its resonance in later generations.
A spirit of fun and celebration runs through the record despite the presence of such serious themes, even in the epic "Land of the Free" with its portentous beat and clanging guitars and Vietnam War tale. Propped up by killer guitar licks, it's a mini-symphony of rock and roll goodness.
The atmospheric "Twang Town Blues" evokes busted dreams and Music City viciousness, while "Days of Wine and Roses" feels a little like countrified Springsteen meets the Byrds, with a steely midtempo beat and hard-pulled guitar strings. In the hard-driving southern rock number "Better Than This" a superb hook tops off a ropy chromatic guitar riff; if it had come out in the late 1970's the song would be a classic rock hit today. "It gets good but it don't get better than this." So true.
Dan Baird provides guest vocals on the stripped-down country number "When Did It Get So Easy (To Lie to Me)." Hard to say just how or when it got that way – where the magic comes from, that is – but Jason & the Scorchers make everything sound easy on this scorcher of a disc, even making a good go of youthfully snotty country-punk in the final track.
Here's a video of the band performing "Mona Lee" live.
Ray Wylie Hubbard may have been busying himself with the movies – his first screenplay has been filmed and is slated for release, starring Dwight Yoakam and Kris Kristofferson – but he hasn't neglected his present fans.
The strange title of his new album reflects the strangeness of his imaginative world. "A. Enlightenment, B. Endarkenment (Hint: There is no C)" – the song, as well as the album named for it – has a slightly lighter, speedier touch than some of Ray Wylie's other recent efforts, but that's all relative. The tidal flow, the elemental bluesy guitar, the sliding, the growling, the mythic, apocalyptic imagery all remain.
The upper register of Ray Wylie's baritone has been pretty much gone for a while now. He uses the hoarseness to roughen up the message of snarly songs like the slow blues "Wasp's Nest." Somewhere in the back of my mind I'm still waiting for a return to the form of Crusades of the Restless Knights, with its quicker tempos, joyful mandolins, and gospel shine. But I can roll with what he's doing here too, even though his recorded music now rarely reflects the humor of his live shows.
It does reflect the rawness of his sensibility. Seldom will you hear such a baldly expressed equivalence between music and sex as in "Pots and Pans" – "Baby's got a tambourine, she shakes it in my face," he snarls, and it gets more and more visceral, devolving into lascivious yet somehow ghostly moaning, as if ancient demigods above some heavenly firmament are mating. That's right – demigods mating. I said it. Meanwhile, on Earth, crows continue to appear from album to album – death birds. In "Tornado Ripe" the crow, for once, is a harbinger of an actual disaster – the "cloud's grown a tail."
Listen to some of the slow blues songs with only half your attention, and you might suspect lazy songwriting. The forms are so tried and true they verge on cliché. But listen closely and a distinctive, road-tested, gasoline-fueled tone is always present. And just when you think things have slowed to a crawl, true gospel rears up with "Whoop and Holler." Ray Wylie has always worked at the crossroads of pagan fatalism and triumphant Christian eschatology. Much of his power comes from that uncomfortable mix, and you have to listen to what the songs are really about to get the full effect.
The two-minute squawk "Every Day is the Day of the Dead" goes down sour and tangy like a sharp-dressed salad. But in "Black Wings" he exhorts, "Fly away on them ol' wings / Black as they may be," re-imagining the death bird as a more heavenly conveyance. It's another slow blues, though, and we're grateful for the major-key anthem which follows it, "Loose" – "We're all gonna bust loose one of these days…We ain't ever gonna break loose of these rock and roll ways." In Ray Wylie's world, breaking loose of these rock and roll ways is the last thing we ever want to do.
A songwriter I know says his ultimate goal is to be able to write a successful one-chord song. When he does that, he will have "arrived." Well, Ray Wylie's got that sewn up. "Beautiful smoke whispers 'never mind,'" he sighs in "Opium." Not every such drone works equally well, and listening to parts of this disc I wonder if I might be better off on some powerful smokeable. (The closing song, "Four Horsemen of the Apocolypse," even recalls Velvet Underground's heroin-fueled viola drones.) But if the mood is melancholy, the spirit retains a persistent, alert sparkle. Ray Wylie trudges on, ever ruminating on death and glory in the dusty America of his imagination.
Malcolm Holcombe, For the Mission Baby
Malcolm Holcombe isn't for everybody. In a minor key, his grey, gravelly voice can sound like an extended death rattle. His new CD opens with the insistent plod and slightly too-loud bass of "Bigtime Blues," with nearly unintelligible lyrics, as if Holcombe is daring you to plunge in to something dangerous. "Hannah's Tradin' Post," about an abandoned gold mining settlement, drily evokes the emptiness of a ghost town. Listening to these songs, you have to lean in to understand what's going on. This is a good thing.
On disc, you don't get the benefit of Holcombe's hyper-physical presence, his shaggy, almost violent guitar attack, or the full measure of his humor – for those, catch him live. But this CD, with its unstoppable beats, David Roe's pounding upright bass, and the sere plinking of Holcombe's 1950 Gibson J-45 acoustic guitar, is a respectable approximation.
Though his songs take traditional forms, his sound and his outlook make Holcombe a true original. His strange singing style can suggest or even verge on the abstract, but there's a canny and fully engaged songwriting sensibility underlying that effect. He can play nice and accuse at the same time: "I ain't got what I want / Never enough / But I got what I need… I ain't got what I want / You have it all." There's lyricism in the almost pastoral "Doncha Miss That Water" and humor in the jaunty "Short Street Blues": "Honey make some coffee, pack up the boxes / Pick your panties up off that floor / We ain't living on Short Street anymore."
There are themes here too – missions, a tentative sort of salvation, and "someone left behind." The waltz "Whenever I Pray" resembles "Satisfied Mind," but rather than ending the disc on that triumphant note, he closes it with a sad song about abandonment – which nevertheless allows that "there's better days ahead." "There's one who does the hurtin' / Two who feel the pain." Gravelly voice and all, this troubadour has a way with a song. If a mix of the raw and the lyrical is your kind of brew, this disc should satisfy. And go see him live if you ever have the chance.
Jeff Norwood, Awendaw
Jeff Norwood's clear tenor and spare, clean guitar sound are a little atypical for Delta blues, a style which white artists often deliver with intentional gruffness. Intriguingly, Norwood's fresh-faced sound feels more real, less studied, than the efforts of some rougher-edged bluesmen. A big part of it is the down-home sense of fun in this set of ten original songs. Instead of worriedly trying his hardest to overtake a retreating "authenticity," Norwood writes and plays what inspires and delights him, and nothing else. Just the titles suggest this sensibility: "Bad Ass Boogie," "Walking Catfish Blues," "Horny Road." "Way up past the strip malls, back to the piney woods / Find a Horny Road somewhere baby that's gonna do us both some good."
He often sings of salvation, damnation, and sex, just like an old-time blues artist, and occasionally tries too hard to be elemental ("Shake"), but hits the nail dead-on in "The Devil": "It all seems much too easy / With Satan by your side / Once he gets inside you boy you're down for sure." The blues scale was meant for lines like this and Norwood matches it up perfectly. Another top track is "Kokomo," where he lets loose with a howl, sliding his voice all over the liquid growl of his slide guitar. It's followed by "Deep and Cold," a surprisingly convincing paean to the peace found only in death; then the disc closes by rocking out with "Save My Wicked Soul." It's not that the best songs are at the end; it's that this is that rare disc that intensifies as it goes along.
Various Artists, España from Putumayo World Music
Here's an easygoing but fascinating survey of music from the many of Spain's culturally distinct regions. The selections come mostly from recent albums, some by new artists, others by elder statesmen like Peret, "the Elvis of rumba catalana," whose "Para Poder Olvidarla" is a good choice to open the disc. The song sets the tone with a typical flamenco acoustic guitar line, then flowers into an amplified jam, flowing through the decades but never losing its surefooted rhythm. Fans of the Gipsy Kings will recognize Peret as an influence on that popular French-Catalan band. Other eminences include the Galician Uxía, whose Danza Ritual features staccato, slightly sinister-sounding piano and horns; the Basque artist Xabier Lete, whose wistfully romantic "San Martin, Azken Larrosa" has a gentle jazzy flavor; and Fernando Burgos who hails from Valencia. The latest generation of Spanish musicians is represented by songs like the soulful "Lunita" by the 21st century band Calima, with its jazz-fusion flavor, and the Afropop- and reggae-influenced "Te Estás Equivocando" by Gecko Turner, who comes from the Extremadura region. Such multi-national grooves, some modern, others old, play through many of these tracks. Listening to this disc is like eating a tasty paella – lots of zesty flavors cooked into one big circular world of goodness.