INDIE ROUND-UP for June 30 2005

This time around, from my mailbox to your computer screen, we’ve got Heartlanders, Hornicators, and the (so far, anyway!) Acoustic Album of the Year. Read on, dear listeners, for here is the one and only…

INDIE ROUND-UP for June 30 2005

Thomas Truax, Audio Addiction

Thomas Truax invents his own instruments, which in itself makes him worth a listen. With contraptions like the Cadillac Beatspinner Wheel and the hornicator, interesting and amusing sounds seem inevitable. I suspect Truax is better experienced live, however, than on CD. The eccentric material he writes to show off his odd contraptions and offbeat sense of humor is only intermittently fun and clever.

“My Wife Had a Dream,” one of the better numbers, boasts something of the geek-chic pioneered by the Residents and Kraftwerk and popularized by Thomas Dolby, the B-52s and early Talking Heads. “The Butterfly & the Entomologist” is a moody, surrealistic spoken-word tale featuring the aforementioned Beatspinner. As a piece of music, it suggests the echo of some obscure PJ Harvey wail, but once you’ve absorbed the unique sounds of Truax’s instruments, you may find the piece lasting several minutes longer than necessary.

“The Fish,” a hornicator feature with vocals and lyrics that seem to consciously evoke the B-52s (and Fred Schneider’s vocal style) is like a B-52s song minus the song. “Hornicator On The Orient Express,” which has no singing, is actually a better feature for the instrument, along with others both standard and unique – from violin to wind-up mobile – and what Truax and his collaborators can do with them. “When You Get Down” is a jaunty little tale of sexuality unbound, with a Peer Gynt quote that jumps right out at you, and “Swappin’ Spit” has some macabre drama to it. But on the whole, this music is more about the medium than the message.

Truax is currently on tour in Britain. I‘d look forward to seeing a live show when he gets back to New York, because it looks as if the stage is where the real Thomas Truax action is at.

Danielle Miraglia, Nothing Romantic

Danielle Miraglia’s country/folk/blues sound descends in large part from Mississippi John Hurt, and she is a worthy carrier of that guitar-picking tradition. Her voice, reminiscent of Bonnie Raitt’s, is strong but vulnerable, feminine but never precious, with a gutwrenching catch to it. Her guitar playing is both accomplished and soulful, and her songs tap into the ur-melodies and fundamental chord changes that form the essence of western music, while still saying something in a distinct and original voice.

Both as a writer and as a musician Miraglia maintains a deep connection to traditional styles of playing and singing. The folky “Snow Globe,” with only her guitar-picking as accompaniment, may be the saddest and best song about self-imposed isolation since Simon and Garfunkel’s “I am a Rock.” From its sparse beauty Miraglia segues into the draggy blues of “Sell My Soul,” the obligatory “I wanna be a star” confessional every highly talented, unjustly obscure singer-songwriter has to write. It has the kind of dirty-blues feel John Hiatt mined a few years ago on his masterful Crossing Muddy Waters album.

Normally I’m not much for feel-good folk weepies, but it’s hard to resist “Moment By Moment” with its earworm of a chorus and Kevin So lending backing vocal and keyboard support. “Say One Thing” is yet another winner, a harshly funny indictment of hypocrisies large and small:

Said the blind man, This is how I see it
Said the stalker, If you love that bird then free it
Said the white-hooded man, Love your brother
Say one thing and do another

Miraglia’s lyrics are full of such pithiness. “Better,” a clever and bouncy country-folk love song, leads into her masterpiece, “You Don’t Know Nothin’,” one of the best new folk songs I’ve heard in years. Its depiction and dissection of human misunderstanding is both sharp and tender. All you need to know about what drives people apart and what draws them together can be witnessed in a few hours spent in a bar. Many of us feel something along those lines, but Danielle Miraglia is that rare songwriter who can put it into words.

Returning to the country-blues groove, but in a minor key, “Cry” is literally about the grim frustration of being an infant who can’t communicate her feelings. Perhaps metaphorically it’s about artistic expression, but the lyrics draw such vivid pictures there’s no need to reach for meaning. It’s a fitting subject for a songwriter who’s so good at getting to the roots of things: what could be more rootsy than infancy?

The title track sounds like a traditional country shuffle about life on the road, and for the most part it is, but it turns the cliched American “romance of the highway” on its head: “There nothing romantic about a highway/No big revelations, nothing new/And I can write a road song any day/There’s nothing romantic about missing you.” Then, in “The Only Way to Win,” the protagonist pleads amusingly for misfortune and heartache so she can write great songs, sing the blues with authenticity and become a star.

In the pretty closer, “The Wind,” Miraglia sings folk with authenticity. But it’s the kind of song any reasonably talented folkie could have come up with. Danielle Miraglia’s talents go far beyond that modest level. This CD kicks Americana ass.

Available at shows and at CD Freedom.

Danielle Miraglia is performing at the Soul of the Blues Summer Festival in New York City on the night of July 28.

Rob Russell & the Sore Losers, Lucky On The Side

Shouting like Phil Lynott, worldly and passionate like John Mellencamp, Rob Russell wails his heart out in every song on this CD. But lots of singers can wail; you still need good songs, and these guys have some really fine ones. If there were still a radio format that played straight-ahead grown-up rock, the insistently catchy opening track, “What Do You Know,” would be a hit.

“American Bastard” is a pumped-up (in fact, slightly overblown) evocation of the musical life:

I’m just the bastard of ceremonies
Singing with a fair degree of acrimony
How am I gonna please a bunch of drunks like these?

It’s pretty good, but the CD’s second real standout track is “Swing Swing,” a gorgeous power ballad with a Springsteen-like harmonica intro and a passionate intensity all Russell’s own.

“The Great Depression” and “After the Flood” are workmanlike heartland rockers with an Eagles influence. Even in these less hooky songs, Russell’s vocals lift the work a notch above typical rock. “It’s Time,” a very Eagles-like midtempo ballad, is a good example of Russell’s ability to invest plainspoken lyrics that might look cliched on the page with intense emotion.

All these walls of silence and sound
We build them up,
we burn them down
Got to build a home on solid ground
I think it’s time

Russell delivers vocals like these as if both his life and yours depended on you understanding every word. Throughout this CD, his keen tenor catches the ear and won’t let go.

The melodies and harmonies in “Believer” sound pleasingly Mellencampy, but the best slow song next to “Swing Swing” is the lovely, jangly country-folk tune “World Turns Blue.” “Cured” and “Hey Hey Hey,” for their part, tread the middle ground between heartland and southern rock, and that’s for the most part where Rob Russell and the Sore Losers have positioned themselves. Not all their songs click perfectly, but the best ones are very good, and few bands have the benefit of such an emotionally gripping singer. The band robustly backs up Russell’s powerful voice; the whole production sounds solidly live and up-front, though the album clearly doesn’t have the benefit of a major label production budget.

Available, with extended samples, at CD Baby.

[Cross-posted at Blogcritics]

CD Review: Janis Joplin, Pearl: Legacy Edition

Pearl was Janis Joplin’s final, and sadly posthumous, studio release. As the album was being recorded in the Fall of 1970, several signs pointed to a positive turnaround in Janis’s life. She had cleaned up her drug habits at least partially, assembled a band (the Full Tilt Boogie Band) exactly to her liking, and begun moving in a new, mature musical direction all her own. She had also finally found a producer, Paul Rothchild, who – as road manager John Cooke describes it in his liner notes to the new Pearl – Legacy Edition – “was unlike any producer she had worked with before… working with him was the best experience of her recording career.”

Plenty has been written about Pearl and I wouldn’t venture to have anything significantly new to say. I’ll just mention that if you haven’t listened to Janis for some time, it’s worth revisiting her last studio album. There will always be some die-hards who think Janis never should have left Big Brother, and there will always be those whose favorite album is I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama, but the fact is, for as long as she lived Janis was always a work in progress. Maybe she always would have been. Pearl represented the summit of her self-creation to that point, and it was the only studio album she truly enjoyed making.

The bonus tracks here include the fascinating demo version of “Me And Bobby McGee” from the Columbia/Legacy Janis release, where you can hear the artist in the process of developing the vocal parts she burned permanently into popular culture just over a month later with the studio recording that ended up on the album. There’s also an alternate version of “Cry Baby” with a longer, goofier rap than the album track – it’s not as tight, but shows that good times were being had in the studio. A previously unreleased alternate take of “My Baby” seems incomplete without the final version’s backing vocals but it is interesting to hear a work in progress almost ready to be served. There’s also an instrumental called “Pearl” which the band recorded after Janis died. This has never before been issued, and it’s a beautiful and poignant tribute.

The fruit of Janis’s successful collaboration with Rothchild and the new band is evident on the album, but the live feel captured on Pearl was, necessarily, not an exact match to the band’s sound in concert. The recent release of a film of the Festival Express tour, in which Janis (with Full Tilt Boogie), the Grateful Dead, The Band, Buddy Guy and others travelled together by train across Canada in June-July 1970, stopping for several concerts, provided some excellent documentary evidence of Janis’s musical development during her last year on the planet. Now, with the two-disc Legacy Edition, a full collection of live Festival Express recordings is readily available. Together with Pearl itself and the bonus studio tracks, the Festival Express recordings comprise a worthy document of the tragically brief, explosive final phase in the career of a singer who was so ahead of her time we may never catch up.

About half the Festival Express tracks on Disc 2 haven’t been released before. The rest have appeared on various live collections over the years. They’re a little tinny-sounding overall, but the band’s energy and prowess is evident, the quality of the vocals satisfyingly warm and close. The present release is valuable both for the new tracks and for having them all collected in one place in a sensible sequence, giving a better picture of a Full Tilt Boogie Band concert than has been previously available.

The frenetically fast “Tell Mama” is a testament to the band’s chops, but also includes a Janis rap that takes the audience up, down, sideways and everywhere in between. Whatever drugs the musicians were taking that made them play that fast didn’t interfere with Janis’s virtuoso ability to play the audience like an instrument.

“Half Moon,” from the same Toronto show, also gets the speed-demon treatment, but ends with a spacy, jazzy twist. Like The Band, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and other top bands of the time, Full Tilt Boogie succeeded (as its predecessor, the Kozmic Blues Band, didn’t) in solidifying as a group, melding top-notch musicianship with a loose but controlled energy that matched Janis’s.

“Move Over” and “Maybe” got straightforward treatments at the Calgary and Winnipeg concerts respectively, and the previously unreleased “Summertime” from Winnipeg is masterful in its way, though only loosely rooted in Sam Andrew’s innovative Big Brother arrangement. Janis’s vocals here show her own mature, serious, intensely focused, innovative spirit. Always famous for taking existing songs and making them uniquely her own, Janis with the Full Tilt Boogie Band not only put her own stamp on these compositions but made them into masterpieces of originality, no longer needing the crutch of her old Big Brother and the Holding Company bandmates, who had matched Janis in exploratory spirit but not in charismatic genius. Full Tilt Boogie, by contrast, was entirely Janis’s vision – this band did exactly and only what she wanted. And with them Janis took rock and blues and soul to places only she could have imagined.

Janis’s version of “Little Girl Blue” is so much her own it’s practically unrecognizable, but that’s well known from the studio version. “That’s Rock ‘N Roll,” a propulsive but unremarkable jam showing off the band, leads into “Try,” where, in talking to the audience, Janis sounds stoned or drunk; then she slurs powerfully (a contradiction in terms for anyone but Janis) through an anthemic rendition – already known to fans from the Janis Joplin in Concert album – of her signature compostion, “Kozmic Blues.”

I’ve never liked Janis’s later renditions of “Piece of My Heart.” She and the band rush through this one as if it were just a tired hit – and perhaps that’s how it seemed to them, a song from an earlier era played only to please fans. (Compare it to Big Brother’s eye-opening version on Live at Winterland ’68, when the song was exciting to the band and new to the audience.) During this “Piece of My Heart” from two years later, even Janis’s singing seems tired.

Clearly, that perfunctory concert closer was going to be followed by some hellacious encores. An extended version of “Cry Baby” was the first. Initially sounding exhausted and flat, Janis nevertheless clearly had her heart in this performance, especially in the long central rap, where she wrapped her blues-mama sermon-blanket over the audience. “Get It While You Can” and “Ball and Chain” made suitably titanic final encores. During the latter, Janis preached a message which it helps to bear in mind when we listen to this work from her last blast and wish she’d lived to sing another day. “Tomorrow never happens,” she tells us. “It’s all the same f*cking day, man.”

That goes for yesterday, too.

[Cross-posted at Blogcritics]

CD Review: Bobby Pinson, Man Like Me

There aren’t too many things more American than a set of songs delivered in a country-western twang, with hard-edged guitars, a dose of Jesus, and lyrics about cars and growing up. That’s Bobby Pinson‘s recipe, and projected through his gutsy songwriting and soaring, slightly unpolished baritone, it’s a winning combination.

Unlike a lot of Nashville “product,” Pinson’s new, self-penned CD feels uncompromised. Take out the twang and a lot of this material would be right at home on a John Mellencamp album, but that doesn’t make it any less authentically “country.” The songs are sentimental but (almost) never cloying, with classic melodies, well-crafted lyrics full of life lessons and Springsteenesque storytelling, and a thrumming country-rock kick. The first single, “Don’t Ask Me How I Know,” is a witty example of a “list” song, its funny and poignant items pregnant with vivid experience that develop from the humorous to the touchingly sad:

Don’t ride your bike off a ramp that’s more than three bricks high
Don’t take that candy from the store if you ain’t got the dime
Don’t pick a fight with the little guy that doesn’t talk that much…
Don’t ask me how I know…
Don’t rush off the phone when your momma calls
You ain’t that busy
You ought to make that drive to say goodbye
To your grandpa before he goes
Don’t ask me how I know

Complete with a guitar riff that echoes Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer” and a climactic minor chord, “Don’t Ask Me” could become a classic.

The title track is a more contemplative expression of the life-lessons theme:

Let your buddy leave a party
And don’t ask him for his keys
Rest that casket on the shoulder where your best friend used to lean…
That’s how you make a boy become
More than just his father’s son.

But this honky-tonk Polonius is more than an everyman-preacher. Other highlights include the elemental growing-up tale “I’m Fine Either Way” and the Eagle-esque lost-love rocker “Way Down.” “One More Believer” is a slightly sappy but effective religious song that only the most militant of atheists could fail to appreciate. “Started a Band” is a catchy, humorous take on the ups and down of trying to make it in music.

Anyone who mines this standard territory risks over-sentimentality and cliche, and Pinson slides a little too far in that direction in “Ford Fairlane” and “Shadows of the Heartland.” But these are exceptions. Nearly all the songwriting on this album is solid, and some of it is sparkling.

Pinson’s voice combines the heft of Bruce Springsteen with the plaintive catch of Townes Van Zandt. It’s an instrument perfectly suited for his formula: four parts old-fashioned subject matter straight from the heart, one part modern angst.

Highly recommended for fans of country music, roots-rock, heartland rock, and good storytelling via song.

[Cross-posted at Blogcritics]

Americana Goes Hollywood

For the first time in its four-year run, the Americana Music Honors & Awards will be broadcast to 37 million homes via the GAC (Great American Country) cable TV network this Fall. Hosted by two-time award winner Jim Lauderdale at Nashville’s legendary Ryman Auditorium, the awards show will be taped on Friday, September 9, 2005 at 7 PM, and broadcast Monday, September 26, 2005 at 8 PM ET. GAC also plans repeat showings.

Though it may appear to be just another awards show, the nationwide broadcast of the Americana Music Association’s annual festivities is a strong indication that the somewhat hard-to-define genre is here to stay. Americana may indeed be more accurately described as a musical movement rather than a genre. As the Association describes it:

Americana is American roots music based on the traditions of country. While the musical model can be traced back to the Elvis Presley marriage of hillbilly and R&B that birthed rock ‘n’ roll, Americana as a radio format developed during the 1990s as a reaction to the highly polished sound that defined the mainstream music of that decade. By also including influences ranging from folk to bluegrass to blues and beyond, Americana handily bridges the gap between Triple A radio and mainstream country.

The key phrase there is “a reaction to the highly polished sound” of mainstream country & western music. Americana artists may be, and often are, just as fine musicians as the famed Nashville “studio cats” you’ll hear on the latest Faith Hill crossover nightmare, but their music isn’t all about slick perfection, it’s about a simpler feel and lyrical authenticity. Unlike the period-instruments movement in classical music, however, Americana is not meant to re-create traditional music, but to suggest the honest, rootsy sounds of those idioms using modern, if generally stripped-down, instrumentation. This week’s chart, for example, is headed by John Prine (who, interestingly, significantly predates the term “Americana”), and also includes black-sheep country singer Dwight Yoakum, Bruce Springsteen’s latest, Shelby Lynne, Loudon Wainwright, and even blues diva Marcia Ball.

INDIE ROUND-UP for June 16 2005

INDIE ROUND-UP for June 16 2005

Sonya Heller, Fourth Floor

Fluid melodies, sultry, jazz-inflected vocals and introspective, literate lyrics define Sonya Heller’s most recent CD, Fourth Floor. The tunes meander too much to be pop and the writing’s too folky to be jazz; instead Heller hits a sophisticated sweet spot somewhere in between. The CD’s mood is pretty steady throughout, but her vocal range and flights of fancy keep it interesting.

Her supporting musicians, especially producer Hui Cox, make important contributions to the sophisticated sound of this recording, but it’s Heller’s softly funky acoustic guitar and controlled, tranquil, yet worldly and sometimes experimental vocals that drive the music. Think Joni Mitchell meets David Crosby on the shady side of Annie Lennox Street.

Rick Cusick, East

Rick Cusick gets some comparisons to Jack Johnson and Dave Matthews, but I don’t get the Johnson comparison: Cusick has a much less rootsy style, doesn’t have Johnson’s sexy voice, and writes more interesting songs. He does share a certain laid-back grooviness with Matthews. But much of his rock has a seventies vibe more reminiscent of Peter Frampton, the Moody Blues, or a young Billy Joel. And – with the exception of “Radio Waves,” an up-to-date complaint about radio station consolidation – the lyrics have an old-fashioned, idealistic quality, as if from a more innocent time.

This works better in some songs than others. The romantic and reflective songs, like “Light I Light,” “Falling Into You” and the overlong “Ride,” are too syrupy for my taste. I like better the ones that carry more musical tension and some darkness, even if they’re less hooky, like “East,” “Osokin” and especially “Dream.” Cusick is best at these wordy story-songs. He does overreach a bit in the sprawling epic “Afraid,” where his characteristic disconnected imagery crosses the line from evocative to unfocussed. But “Go For Better Love” is a different kind of exception, an irresistible if lyrically jumbled pop nugget.

Although Cusick puts plenty of passion into his strong, clear tenor, the voice itself sometimes has a closed-off quality that prevents him from achieving the full earthiness of a Graham Nash or the immediacy of a Dave Matthews. Even so, this ambitious and well-produced effort pays dividends. Extended song samples are available here.

Elisa Korenne, Favorite

Singer-songwriter Elisa Korenne has been making the coffeehouse circuit, but on her new album she shows her true colors as a rocker. Like Paula Cole or Sheryl Crow, she melds rock with singer-songwriter pop in a balanced recipe. She doesn’t just graft rock guitar tracks onto her songs – she can actually write rock tunes.

“Find My Strength” is an example, and it probably seemed like an appropriate opening track because of its “hear me roar” theme and tribal beat, but it lacks a punchy hook. The up-tempo alt-rocker “Road Trance” with its Alice In Chains-style chorus and Beatlesque ending has much more hit potential and a modern sound. And the strong rocker “Marrow,” because it shows instead of tells, succeeds where “Find My Strength” doesn’t in establishing the artist’s persona as a powerful woman to be reckoned with.

That is no small matter. One hears a lot these days about how “chicks rock,” but the fact is, notwithstanding mini-movements like riot grrl, when it all shakes out it becomes clear that few chicks actually rock. Or perhaps it would be better put this way: chicks don’t rock nearly as much as they would if I ran the world. That’s why it’s so satisfying to hear an artist writing real rock songs and imposing her will on the genre rather than merely trying it on or playing at it. The world would be a better place if more women were less afraid to write (or declare): “I want to know you inside-out/Let me be a parasite/So I can love you with all my might…/I need emotion to feed my soul/I know emotion’s hiding in your bones/I want your marrow.” That’s strong stuff, especially from a white, female, non-blues artist.

Korenne does try on other styles, and they fit pretty well. “Flirt With Me” is a pleasing, grungy jazz number, and “Instead” is a gorgeous original folk song about lost love, sung in perfect a capella harmonies. The heartland ballad “Butte” and the clever, circusy trifle “Andy the Lightbulb Eater” both work nicely. I’m not sure what “About” is about – maybe its lyrics are beyond my dimwitted male understanding – but it’s a fine ballad. “Honest Lies” isn’t as memorable but has the penetrating line: “Nothing’s more seductive/Than being seen right through.”

The title track is an uncharacteristic lapse into limp female singer-songwriter cutesiness, only partially rescued by producer and multi-instrumentalist Danielle A. Weiss’s harmonica solo. Overall, this is a very strong album. The only real problem is that Korenne’s voice doesn’t have the heft to get the most out of her material. I expect if she strengthened her voice she could cut loose with it more: both her rockers and her ballads would benefit, and she could really wipe the floor with the Ani DiFranco clones and Joni Mitchell wannabees of the world, not to mention the males in the audience who might make the mistake of thinking Elisa Korenne was just another pretty face on the stage.

Song samples available here.


Item! Classical-fusion duo Chris and Adelmo, who meld opera and pop forms into a new and unique musical experience, held a standing-room-only kickoff recital last night with guests including crossover star Sasha Lazard, Antonique Smith of Rent fame, and Venezuelan pianist-phenomenon Vanessa Perez. Chris and Adelmo’s demo can be heard here. They are seeking marketing ideas, new material, and arrangers.

Item! Reclusive British singer/songwriter Vashti Bunyan is deep into the recording of her first new album since 1970’s “Just Another Diamond Day.” Vashti’s new album will feature original material written in recent years or during the recording. The new CD is expected out on DiCristina Staircase late this year.

[Cross-posted at Blogcritics]