Posts Tagged ‘rock’

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.

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: Sybarite5 at Galapagos Art Space, Brooklyn NY

Friday, July 30th, 2010

The string quintet version of the chamber group behind The Dido Project made its Brooklyn debut last night with a flourish. Bassist Louis Levitt worried aloud whether the group was "cool enough" to play Brooklyn, but these young boundary-challenging musicians' lack of hipster attitude is as refreshing as their playing is acute.

With technique that approached impeccable, the five members of Sybarite5 showed off their love and mastery of a variety of 20th century music (and beyond), from Barber and Piazzolla to Led Zeppelin and Radiohead. The best moments, though, came in the new works crafted specifically for this type of group. Jazzy percussiveness met minimalism in Piotr Szewczyk's "The Rebel" to start things off; then the evening really took off with a piece written for the ensemble, "Black Bend" by Dan Visconti. It started modernistically, showing off violinist Sarah Whitney's ability to draw emotion out of squeaks and clawing sounds, then morphed into a blues shuffle underlying coruscating near-chaos punctuated with dabs of humor. This was one of a number of passages during the concert in which the quintet pulled from its strings the coming-from-everywhere sound of a larger group.

Thomas Osborne's "Furioso: Vendetta for String Quintet" had a very different feel but a similar aliveness. Frantic, syncopated sixteenth-note stretches and chromatic frenzies were relieved by brief lyrical passages. A miasma of dissonant tone clusters slowed to a contemplative hum; then the piece built back up to a reprise of the opening gallop before lapsing back for an unexpectedly somber ending. Really good stuff.

As for the familiar pieces: Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings" become one of the 20th century's greatest hits for good reason—its dark, wrenching beauty—but by the same token it tends to be overplayed. Sybarite5 made a good case for its continued inclusion in the concert repertoire, turning off the microphones and playing a rich, thoughtful rendition built around cellist Laura Metcalf's sensitive, melodic touch. Continuing to survey the last century's greatest hits from various genres, they ventured a dense, energetic and finally delightful arrangement of Dave Brubeck's equally overplayed "Blue Rondo a la Turk," and a multi-layered version of Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven."

The harmonically complex, suite-like "Stairway" lends itself well to the "classical" treatment, but not all rock is equal. Zeppelin's riff-based "Heartbreaker" seemed gimmicky by contrast, despite Whitney's vivacious reproduction of Jimmy Page's famous out-of-time solo.

The group has also devoted a good deal of energy to its Radiohead project. Last night they played three selections by the experimental rockers, arranged smartly by Paul Sanho Kim. Some of this music, though, is too repetitious and self-consciously cerebral to really succeed at this level; dependent as they are on atmosphere, Radiohead's songs are difficult to make effective out of context. "Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box" was fun, though, with the musicians evoking the rhythms of the original through tapping on strings with spoons and other unorthodox techniques.

Sami Merdinian, the group's other violinist, hails from Argentina, and appropriately enough he led them in two crowd-pleasing Ástor Piazzolla tangos, one slow and one sprightly. Both swung heartily and showcased the ensemble's rich tones and impressively synchronized playing.

If you're looking for a worthy successor to the Kronos Quartet as a small string ensemble pushing the envelope of concert music, count this exciting gang of five as one excellent candidate.


Originally published as “Sybarite5 at Galapagos Art Space, Brooklyn NY” 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: 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: 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.