Posts Tagged ‘country’

Book Review: Neil Young: Long May You Run by Daniel Durchhortz and Gary Graff

Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010

When Neil Young and Crazy Horse played at Jones Beach some years ago on the Horde Tour — it appears to have been 1997, as I am reminded by one of the countless concert posters reproduced in this new book — the "Dreamin' Man" was more of a "Complainin' Man." And what was he complaining about? Us. We, the audience, weren't appreciating the music enough, or so Neil thought.

I was having a fine time at what seemed to me a great concert. I'd never seen this god of rock live before and boy was I impressed. But what did I know?

Daniel Durchhortz and Gary Graff open their new illustrated history, Neil Young: Long May You Run, with a similar anecdote from 1983. Young was expected to play a second set with the Shocking Pinks, the rockabilly group he'd recently put together. Instead he played two acoustic numbers and called it a night, later explaining to his father, "That crowd didn't deserve the Shocking Pinks!"

A betrayal of the performer-audience contract? Conventionally speaking, yes — the artist is supposed to give his all for the crowd, do the best he can, that's what he's paid for. But Neil Young has never been a conventional artist, as the authors concisely document in their new book. "Neil Young does not explain," they write. "He simply does."

As a biography, the book is brief and breezy (yet occasionally repetitive). It gives an outline of the life (so far) of Neil Young, rocker, with glimpses of Neil Young, family man and human being. It's written well, and well-organized — chronologically, but with sidebars on particular topics, including interesting stuff like the history of CSNY and the making of "Ohio," and less fascinating material like Young's female collaborators and his relationahip with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Sprinkled throughout are quotes from a pantheon of famous rockers, most of whom aren't very articulate about why Neil was important to them — but then, what makes Neil Young a crucial and unique figure is something that goes a bit deeper than words. One thing the book does stress is his unwillingness to compromise or to repeat himself, traits which really do make him unique.

Of course, no book can convey the sounds that made Neil Young the icon he remains today. But this one does an excellent job of documenting his career visually, and it will probably be an essential buy for any Neil Young completist. It will also make a nice addition to the bookshelf or coffee table of anyone who appreciates the great innovators of rock and roll.

In terms of what the book bills itself as — "The Illustrated History" — it delivers, housing a treasure trove of color photos and reproductions of posters, LP and single covers (including many international rarities), even tickets and backstage passes. In the back it offers an extensive discography, a filmography, and information about Young's most important sidemen.

Best for browsing through and absorbing its plethora of images, it's also readable. Hard to ask for much more in this kind of book.


Originally published as “Book Review: Neil Young: Long May You Run by Daniel Durchhortz and Gary Graff” on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Mitchell, Tucker, Bates, Walker

Thursday, July 29th, 2010

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.

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: Jason & the Scorchers – Halcyon Times

Wednesday, March 17th, 2010

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.

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: 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.