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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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?
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.
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.
Matt Morris is a strong and unusually thoughtful pop singer-songwriter who is entirely unafraid to put his heart and soul on the line, and has the talent, intelligence, and pluck to pull it off. The first song pounds out the industrial-sounding refrain: "I told you everything, I swear! / So don't you dare!" "Don't you dare leave" is what we infer the command to mean. And we don't – after this powerful intro it's hard to do anything but give Morris full attention.
He switches gear immediately with "Money," with its moody brassy introduction, jazzy guitar, and silken R&B vocals. "Money ain't the villain / It's greed that's the killer." The subtle reggae beats of the light-as-air "Love" enfold understated, vaguely angelic vocals, while the gorgeous string-fueled "Bloodline," which became a favorite ballad of mine when it appeared on Morris's earlier EP, is here in all its glory, as is "The Un-American," a concise, "Eleanor Rigby"-like polemic against capitalist excess. "Let It Go" is a piano ballad that feels like Beethoven meets "Bridge Over Troubled Water." Morris's falsetto here is little short of divine.
The lesser songs, like "Live Forever" and the James Brown-inspired jam "You Do It For Me," often still have enough pop grit to be worth a listen, though the tough-guy persona of the latter doesn't quite ring true, nor does the Coldplay-like shimmer of "Just Before the Morning." Morris does less well when he adopts derivative styles. And a couple of slow songs near the end of the disc go on too long and feel a bit like filler, despite evocative arrangements and pleasing displays of that killer falsetto.
But the longest song, the nearly eight-minute opus appropriately titled "Eternity," earns its expansiveness with a Biblical evocation of the stretch of human history and mythology. There's a wide gulf between this and the pleasant pop fluffiness of "You Do It For Me" – it feels like we've moved onto a different album, one recorded by, say, a cantor gone batty. The U2-ish bombast of "Forgiveness" works, too, aided by the religious imagery Morris calls upon more than once: "I've broken holy laws, and I wept beneath her cross / I've cried for what's been lost, and for all that I've done." Far from crying, Morris can be very proud of what he's done. Do check it out.
Like the prose poem, the art song can seem a neglected foster child. A song but not a pop song, it typically has the musical sophistication and seriousness we associate with the great traditions of classical and romantic music, but its subject matter can be frothy as well as fiery, humorous as easily as heavy. But American composers like Aaron Copland and Charles Ives are generally better known for instrumental or choral works than for their art songs, while even many classical music lovers may not know Franz Schubert's stunning song cycle Winterreisse, an important progenitor of the genre.
Soprano Jessica Medoff, the fabulous Sorceress in Purcell's opera Dido and Aeneas a year ago, showcased another side of her ability in The Truth About Love…and the Usual Lies. Weaving art songs and show tunes together, she and her husband, the very talented pianist Michael Bunchman, presented a song cycle of their own on the inexhaustible subject of love. While I know a bit about art songs, something about musical theater, and even some Schubert, I cheerfully admit I didn't recognize many of the selections. Cheerfully because it made the show edifying as well as enjoyable. I wasn't familiar with Copland's settings of poems by Emily Dickinson, and here was the lovely "Heart we will forget him." I didn't know the American composer William Bolcom's witty ditty "Toothbrush Time" – here it was. Another revelation: Jason Robert Brown's "Stars and the Moon."
A highlight for me was Kurt Weill's "Surabaya Johnny," a hyper-passionate wail that can really take the measure of a singer; Ms. Medoff was all over that thing like a hungry lioness. "I Don't Care Much" from Cabaret was equally intense in a quieter way. To lighten the mood we had the very funny "Taylor the Latte Boy" together with its answer, "Taylor's Response" (sung artfully by Mr. Bunchman from the piano). The overrated Avenue Q has given us one lasting tune, the plaintively sweet "There's a Fine, Fine Line," sung by Ms. Medoff with understated sensitivity.
One remarkable thing about the show is the two performers' seamless connection; it's as if they can read each others' minds, piano and voice flowing together in perfect sympathy. This makes just about any song they perform something more than the sum of its parts. It reminded me of seeing a longstanding piano trio or string quartet, or a singing group consisting of siblings – a conductorless ensemble breathing together as if one creature. During the quietest passages the piano occasionally drowned out the voice, but this was not the performers' fault. The operatically-trained Ms. Medoff has a finely calibrated control, equally steady from pianissimo to fortissimo, and the program showed off her range without going overboard. The purpose wasn't to impress (or didn't come across that way), but to amuse and delight, and maybe introduce us to some unfamiliar but very worthwhile material. And that it did.
The duo has put together a few such cabaret cycles. If you have an opportunity to see this one, or anything else they do, grab it!
From Seven in One Blow to Snow White and now Hansel and Gretel, the Brothers Grimm have defined my December. Grandest and "Grimmest" of all is the last, presented by the Metropolitan Opera in a gorgeous English-language production by Richard Jones that originated at the Welsh National Opera and first ran at the Met in 2007.
With glorious voices, delightful acting, and Fabio Luisi conducting a fired-up Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, the production boasts John Macfarlane's beautiful if somewhat modest (for the Met) sets, which carry through the central motif (food!) – from the family's humble kitchen, all in off-white, to the dark green dreamlike woods, and finally to the Witch's gingerbread house, looking like a fantasyland test kitchen.
As the title characters, Angelika Kirchschlager and Miah Persson sing in lovely colors, leading a strong cast all of whom seem to be having a wonderful time. Tenor Philip Langridge made a splash as the Witch two years ago and has clearly lost none of his enthusiasm, giving her a depth of character that easily survives the table-dancing, the funny and slightly campy costume, and the clouds of cocoa powder and face full of cake. Dwayne Croft's sturdy voice and capacity for boisterous humor make him ideal for the role of the father, and Rosalind Plowright does wonderfully sympathetic work in Act I as the harried mother, who gets impatient with her children only because she can't feed them.
Engelbert Humperdinck's score has been justly celebrated for over a century, and Mr. Luisi strikes just the right balance of Wagnerian sublimity (Humperdinck was a Wagner protégé) and the warm angelic brilliance the tale inspired in the composer. That warmth is most pronounced in the gorgeous "Fourteen Angels" song with which the lost Hansel and Gretel sing themselves to sleep in the dark woods. The chef-angels dream sequence that follows is a scene of exquisite, wordless beauty.
Once the Witch has been roasted, the family reunited, and the Witch's gingerbread victims restored to humanity, the opera concludes with a lovely chorale proclaiming "When in need or dark despair, God will surely hear our prayer." But the religious patina is purely a matter of faith; the children have survived their ordeal solely because of their own quick thinking, Gretel's in particular. It's a fairy story, after all, a crusty old folk tale gathered by the Grimms from ancient sources, and the Christian God is a latecomer to this musical feast; perhaps he'll be seated during intermission, but only at the discretion of the management. There's much more primal business to attend to, summed up in the final image: as all celebrate their safety and momentary bounty, a leering Hansel raises a roasted Witch-limb to his mouth as the house goes dark.
Rounding out the cast, Jennifer Johnson is the Sandman and Erin Morley his sunrise counterpart the Dew Fairy. These two fine singers in cameo roles prove that the Met can summon an embarrassment of riches even for its smallest and most family-friendly offerings. Not that anything at the Metropolitan Opera can really be called small, though; this Hansel and Gretel is serious opera, if by "serious" we mean a story with depth, world-class performances, and glorious music. A joy for all ages, it would make a fine introduction for any opera neophyte, child or adult. Hansel and Gretel runs in repertory through Jan. 2 at the Met.
I don't know about you-all, but I started my holiday season off just right with a trip to Don't Tell Mama for Vickie and Nickie's holiday show.
I hadn't been to the legendary cabaret spot for years and was glad to find the place still going strong. A full house turned up for real-life sisters Lisa and Lori Brigantino, who play Vickie and Nickie, two busy Midwestern moms who take to the stage to delight and entertain with humorous banter (abundant), multi-instrumental musical talents (considerable), and big ol' personalities (wickedly twisted, if all in good family-friendly fun).
Straight from "the prison circuit" and the land of lutefisk – Garrison Keillor fans will know what that is – the pair poke good-natured fun at middle-of-the-road American culture while revving up the crowd with perfectly executed vocal harmonies and musicianship (keyboards, guitar, uke, sax…). In this edition they got the balance between spoof and sincerity just right, heavy on the former, belting out Christmas favorites ranging from straight-up takes on "Feliz Navidad" and "Blue Christmas" to Springsteen and Streisand versions of classic carols, supplemented by a couple of punchy original Vickie and Nickie numbers. Amidst the holiday cheer they also worked in hilariously non-jokey versions of "Under Pressure" and that new camp classic, Beyonce's "Single Ladies," which got the audience shouting along in delight. They've discovered, and nailed, the big secret: playing things more or less straight can get more laughs than a lot of horsing around.
Undercurrents of anger and competitiveness make Vickie and Nickie both campier and realer than they'd otherwise seem, while the Brigantino sisters' high-end musical skills allow them to make the act, with its unflagging energy and common-denominator humor, look easy.
'Tis the Season with Vickie and Nickie had two performances last week at Don't Tell Mama. Visit their website for news of upcoming shows, or just hang around the local women's prison till they show up, bewigged and besparkled, spreading good old-fashioned cheer whatever the time of year.