Posts Tagged ‘blues’

Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Levasseur, The Problems, Lisa Brigantino

Wednesday, August 18th, 2010

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.

Music Review: David Olney – Dutchman’s Curve

Wednesday, April 7th, 2010

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: Indie Round-Up – Fight the Quiet, John Milstead, Tolstrup & Haskell

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

Fight the Quiet, Let Me In

Having joined the iPod generation, I often lose track of bands' promotional materials, not to mention their physical CDs with those informative inserts (assuming I had them in the first place). There's something to be said for having no preconceived notions, though. As I write this, I know nothing about how Fight the Quiet see themselves. Certainly, slick pop-rock describes them fairly. But did they intend an homage to 1970's arena rock?

If so, they've succeeded, and very well, thanks first to catchy songs and second to high, clear lead vocals (imagine Dennis DeYoung with a slight scratchy edge). The first song on this six-track EP, the title track, actually sounds like it could be one of the better efforts of one of those dinosaur bands. The contemplative "Won't Let Go" has a more modern edge, with shimmery verses alternating with power-chord choruses and wedged around a bridge highlighted by a deliberately retro synth.

"Sway" inches towards a moderate punk beat, with a straight-ahead structure and melody that wouldn't have been out of place in the age of T. Rex, though the icy-dirty guitar attack would have, as would the nod to Aerosmith in the bridge and coda. Overall the tracks have a fresh, youthful appeal, whatever decade(s) they take their inspiration from. Solid songwriting is still Number One in this business, and these guys have it. Making a memorable hook out of the tired (though still resonant) phrase "Here's looking at you," as they do in the closing track, is no mean trick.

John Milstead, Sides of the Soul

Here's a well-produced album with solid (if sometimes a little overly derivative) musical ideas, excellent vocals, and one main flaw: weak lyrics. Song after song starts promisingly only to fade under the weight of words that don't flow, and tend to drag down the melodies with them. A couple of songs break out, notably "Your Crime" (the "hardest" track on this ballad-heavy disc) and the decidedly hooky "Got This Love Thing." There and in numerous other tracks one can hear a strong thread of Marc Broussard-like soul. Milstead is capable of jazzy phrasing, like Van Morrison with clearer diction, and owns a strong high tenor that soars into Michael Bolton territory when he wants it to; listening to him sing is an unadulterated pleasure. The ballad "Easy Goodbye," for example, goes down easy for that reason. Raising the level of his material a notch could lift Milstead into pretty exalted territory.

Mark Tolstrup & Dale Haskell, Street Corner Holler

These two bluesmen make an excellent pairing, like a smooth but hearty wine with a comfort-food dinner. Drummer Haskell's country-rock vocals complement Tolstrup's more laid-back country-blues style; together they've produced an album of mostly basic but satisfyingly varied blues, their electric songs and acoustic numbers equally rough and fundamental. The haunting rendition of Skip James's "Hard Time Killin' Floor" is a highlight. Others are Tolstrup's simple folk ballad "City in the Rain," and Haskell's "Death Don't Disappoint Me" which brings to mind the lyrical songs of Beaucoup Blue. In both originals and covers (including an effective and surprising "It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry") Tolstrup and Haskell strike an effective balance between their own expressive creativity and reverence for what made the blues the powerful medium it is, still. Wailing backing vocals from the fabulous Mother Judge are the icing on the cake.

Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Delta Moon, Backyard Tire Fire, Patty Cronheim

Wednesday, February 24th, 2010

Delta Moon, Hellbound Train

"You'll never get to heaven on a hellbound train," singer Tom Gray croaks in this CD's opening number, whose rather obvious message blossoms into a pungent cautionary tale. Delta Moon churns out a thick blend of Chicago slide-guitar blues and Southern soul-rock, and Mark Johnson plays a mean slide guitar, but it's the pair's focused songwriting that makes this disc a keeper. "Are you lonely for me, babe, like I'm lonely for you?" sighs the character in "Lonely" – "I hold onto something, a drink or a girl / 'Cause I feel like I'm falling off the edge of the world."

The music is as emotional as it is economical and tough, with time-worn themes – stories about jailbirds, drifters, and dashed hopes – couched in powerful and sometimes poetic imagery. At the same time it's possible to enjoy this music with your reptile brain, which, if it's anything like mine, will dig the slouching beats and growling guitars.

The band nods to rootsy blues with a reverent acoustic cover of Fred McDowell's classic "You Got To Move," while "Stuck in Carolina" gets stuck in its jerky one-chord groove for a full five minutes and works just fine, thanks in part to a nifty sax solo by guest Kenyon Carter. "Ain't No Train" is another chunky lo-fi jam, compacted into three and a half growling minutes, with the guitar evoking soul-music horn riffs, and "Ghost in My Guitar" is that rarity, a song about playing music which – mostly because of its a haunting chorus – doesn't make you want to skip to the next track to find something less self-indulgent or self-referential. Humility found in surprising places – like in that song's message about the mysteries of inspiration – is one of the strains in Delta Moon's music that lofts it above and beyond the basic blues.

Backyard Tire Fire, Good To Be

It's all about the irony, folks. But wait – I mean that in a good way. From the title of the opening rocker, "Road Song # 39," you might get a whiff of it, but just listening to the track you'd probably expect a collection of Southern rock. But no. Indeed, no. "Ready Or Not," with its insistent beat, octave-doubled vocals, and synthesizers actually calls to mind the unfairly maligned Steve Miller Band of the '70s, and things get quirkier from there, self-aware but generous to the listener, as opposed to self-absorbed. "Learning to Swim" smells like geek spirit, and "Brandy" – well, I'll just call it marimba pop and leave it at that. "Estelle" layers the band's off-kilter observations on top of underlying verse changes that echo the Beatles' "Don't Let Me Down." And this disc doesn't. The songs lie at a happy confluence of riffy rock-and-roll and what-was-that?

Patty Cronheim, Days Like These

Lots of folks sing jazz. Lots of singers write songs. But not lots of jazz singers write songs. Most singers, from the best of the best to the pedestrian and mediocre, content themselves with interpreting standards and "jazzifying" the occasional pop tune. Patty Cronheim takes a different route on her new disc, writing the majority of the material and in the process creating the sorts of songs that sound like "standards" that somehow slipped under the radar for the past 60 or 70 years.

With able help from a group of wonderful musicians, and the arranging skills of her pianist Aaron Weiman and others, she's put together a very satisfying set with a timeless sound. Ms. Cronheim isn't a spectacularly adventurous singer, but she has a very warm, expressive voice, a nice melodic sense, and a distinct rhythmic feel.

In two of her covers she and her collaborators get a little more playful: the gently funky "Summertime," and the strange and oddly satisfying "Superstition" with its chattery horns. On the original tunes she covers the basics from the jazz playbook – straight jazz and bebop, Latin jazz beats, blues, a 4/4 ballad and one in 6/8 time, a bit of funk – you can play the game of "what was she thinking of when she wrote this ("Christmas Time Is Here?" "'Round Midnight?" Am I way off base?) And a couple of the songs towards the end of the disc feel less inspired than the best compositions. But with melodies and lyrics that fit her cozy voice like a blanket (or vice versa), a thoroughly developed and artfully deployed jazz vocabulary, and only one track with any scatting, Patty Cronheim has delivered a winner that's earned a place on my jazz shelf.

Music Review: Ray Wylie Hubbard – A. Enlightenment, B. Endarkenment (Hint: There is no C)

Friday, February 5th, 2010

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.

Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Malcolm Holcombe, Jeff Norwood, Putumayo’s España

Sunday, October 18th, 2009

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.