Posts Tagged ‘pop’

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: 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: Matt Morris – When Everything Breaks Open

Saturday, January 30th, 2010

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.

Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Chris Schutz, Easter Monkeys, Putumayo’s Jazz, Tom White

Sunday, November 29th, 2009

Chris Schutz + Tourists, Gemini

There's a lot more to Chris Schutz's sound than the Radiohead-like thrumming bass and plaintive single-note guitar pinches of "White Lady," the opening track on his debut disc. Schutz's voice comes at you as if from a cave beneath your feet and somehow says "postmodern," but the simple fact that you're hearing a good song keeps you listening. Next comes "Spinning Wheel" with its fast pop pulse and organ-heavy wall of sound, clocking in at under 2 minutes 20 seconds, and the folky, vaguely tropical "Continental Drifter" which reads like a cross between the Drifters (title no accident?) and the Mamas and the Papas.

Other songwriting styles and beats drift through the rest of the disc: a swirl of reggae-soul, south of the border trumpets, country-western swagger, a Squeeze-like jauntiness. Slightly muted, echoey production sweeps through everything, reflecting Schutz's use of analog equipment and his 60s-influenced aesthetic. The latter is evident in titles like "Tripping the Bit" and "So High" with its not one but two deceptively simple two-chord hooks alternating with chunky, Kinks-like surprise changes and completely unexpected sax solo.

All tied together by Schutz's honeyed voice and the vintage sounds he and his band prefer, the disc closes with a contemplative acoustic number and a power ballad that sounds like Roy Orbison meeting the Beatles. Like many of the songs, they each bear an unexpected change or two. And that's what this excellent album – definitely one of the top pop debuts of the year – is all about: solid but dreamy pop that does much more than just float by.

Easter Monkeys, Splendor of Sorrow

Easter Monkeys ravaged Cleveland in the early 1980s with drug-addled, slightly psychedelic punk rock. Their album Splendor of Sorrow has been re-released, nicely remastered, and packaged with extras including live tracks and a concert DVD that will definitely please fans. Despite the bleary vocals and anything-goes sensibility, this foursome could play, and this is quite a fun listen if you're in the right mood: loose, goofy, unjaded. It may have helped, in my case, that I never heard of the band before and knew nothing about them except what's in the liner notes, which are themselves thirteen years old.

I have been to several Cleveland rock clubs, though. Even played in a few. I've seen American Splendor. And it does all make a stinky kind of sense. This rocking, jangling, funny music, of a type I don't normally listen to, has grown on me. Like mold in a damp underground club.

Various Artists, Jazz Around the World from Putumayo World Music

Ahhhh… everything's OK. Feels like it anyway.

Must be a Putumayo CD in the stereo.

This time around it's Jazz Around the World, featuring artists from all over (but especially Africa and Europe) performing or at least touching on America's classical music: jazz. Appropriately enough it starts out with Montreal's Chantal Chamberland singing "La Mer" in the original French, her husky alto preparing us for a journey through worlds of cool. Flecks of neo-soul dot the almost disturbingly unthreatening vocal and guitar stylings of Cameroon's Blick Bassy. Djelli Moussa Diawara, who hails from Guinea, applies his kora skills to a Cuban tune as part of the Kora Jazz Trio. Mexico-based group Sherele jazzes up traditional klezmer. Artists better known in the West are represented too: Hugh Masekela teams with singer Malaika and a South African chorus for "Open the Door," which crosses gospel with Afropop. (It's a bit of a stretch to call this particular number "jazz.") And fusion legend Billy Cobham appears with the Cuban group Asere.

Putumayo discs are always likable and almost always relaxing; but some of the choices on this one feel, if anything, excessively safe. Nonetheless it's certainly a pleasant listen and would make a fine stocking stuffer for most world music or jazz fans.

Tom White, Voices from Corn Mountain – Instrumental Music Featuring the Hammered Dulcimer

While Putumayo travels the world in search of music that's both exotic and pleasant to Western ears, your intrepid reviewer has to drive only a few hours north of New York City to work with producer, recording engineer, and multi-instrumentalist Tom White, who kindly gave me a copy of his recent CD. The disc is loaded with instrumental pieces featuring the hammered dulcimer, one of the many instruments of which he is a master. (Tom also plays guitar, fiddle, mandolin, tin whistle, flutes, two different banjos, concertina, and percussion, and that's just on this one CD.) The tunes are a mix of traditional Celtic dances and originals. Email Tom at wizmak at a-oh-ell dot com for information on ordering a copy of this beautiful and unusual recording.