Indie Round-Up for Dec 29 2005: Brianna Lane, Mark Tolstrup, Best of 2005

This week, in addition to a couple of worthy new independent releases, I’m posting my Best of 2005 picks. These picks were kindly requested by Blogcritics, and have already been published there in individual articles for each category with the other critics’ selections, but for the convenience of my readers I’ve put mine all together at the bottom of today’s round-up.

First, this week’s items:

Brianna Lane, Radiator

Confessional folk-pop: not generally my favorite style. Another grown-up woman singing in a little-girl voice about her dreams and disappointments: sounds pretty bleak, I know. But several elements lift Brianna Lane’s CD out of the common dregs of the coffeehouse.

First, Lane’s minimally adorned tunes and sentiments are undergirded by sophisticated melodic and lyrical writing that borrows from country, jazz and rock along with whitebread-folk. Second, producer Evan Brubaker swaddles the songs in dense twangy guitars and earthy rhythms that get the most out of Lane’s limited vocal range and breathy, husky sound. Third, her own solid, expressive acoustic guitar playing gets numerous opportunities to drive the music.

Some of the most serious and interesting songs come late in the CD. “Wrong Hands” has an intense Americana-rock flavor and “Man in the Moon” is a quietly depressing acoustic-guitar gem. “Bullet” is that rarity, a song that centers around being a songwriter yet says something touching and interesting instead of cloying: “i just might have a bullet of a song to make you cry / we gave each other songs just like flowers / i never really gave you enough flowers / now these rhymes are just like guns.” That’s a pretty eloquent expression of the awesome power writers wield with their pens. Brianna Lane writes in small letters, but sings of heartbreak with the soul of a poet. Whether her smart, expressive writing can make up for her lack of a big or beautiful voice and propel her to the level of a Jewel or Sarah McLachlan remains to be seen, but this CD will help make her case.

Mark Tolstrup, Root Magic

Mark Tolstrup adeptly plays Delta blues (and related styles) on guitar and National Steel, singing in warm, flattened tones halfway between Charles Brown and John Mayall. He does fine justice to traditional numbers and to well-chosen classics by Robert Johnson, Leadbelly and others, and includes some of his own songs as well. His original lyrics don’t have quite the elemental heft of the classics, although “Old Man’s Blues” is epic in scope and “The Second Day of November,” based on Tampa Red’s “Denver Blues,” is haunting. Still they work well in the context of the CD. Tolstrup’s abundant skills and deep feel for the music make this a fine collection worthy of a place on anyone’s country-blues shelf.

BEST OF 2005

It’s that time! Please note that you won’t find any White Stripes or Gorillaz here; my selections are taken from the pool of indie music, since that’s my most “regular” beat. I have also broken the rules and included items from the second half of 2004, since indie artists typically have a longer gestation and promotion period than major label acts and sometimes it takes them a little longer to get their review copies distributed: thus the ritual cutting of the slack.

BEST SONG: “I Don’t Know”
Artist: Nicola
CD: What’s the Point

In addition to putting on a killer stage show, Nicola writes some of the most captivating songs out there. This one rocks, it’s full of intense passion, and it’s super-catchy.

BEST ALBUM: Presenting The Great Unknowns
Artist: The Great Unknowns

Unfortunately still mostly living up to their name, this band infuses their weatherbeaten Americana sensibility with an unusual poetic lyricism.

BEST ARTIST (SINGLE): Ray Wylie Hubbard

Townes Van Zandt is gone and now we’ve lost Johnny Cash, but we still have Ray Wylie, as deeply soulful as ever.


Iggy reborn? The Strokes on hash? The Ramones crossed with the Animals? Holy crap, these guys are stupid cool.

That is all. May our collective 2006 be better than 2005 was, and may your 2006 be your best year yet.

Soul Music List

Been thinking a lot about soul music lately. Maybe ’cause it’s almost New Year’s Eve, when I will get to play a gig with my classic soul band The Hot Button All-Stars. Maybe it’s just always a good time to be thinking about soul music. Anyway, Bob Davis, proprietor of the invaluable Soul Patrol website, just wrote me, and it reminded me that I hadn’t recently published an updated list of my reviews relating to soul music and related matters. So here are the links, in all their underlined glory:

Janis Joplin
Victor Wooten
The O’Jays
Willie Hightower
W. C. Clark
Keb’ Mo’
Richard “Groove” Holmes
Gail Ann Dorsey
Bobby Purify
Corey Harris
Bobby Womack (DVD)
Lewis Taylor

Another Preordained Dollar-Coin Failure?

Once again the US Treasury is planning a new dollar coin. Ever since the Depression ended and inflation took hold, one of the most inconvenient things about quotidian life in the US has been the necessity for one-dollar bills. Yet, as with more urgent matters like health care and global warming, the US has been and remains well behind the times in pocket-change convenience.

Contrary to what some say, the failure of dollar coins to catch on cannot be ascribed to a recalcitrant public. The blame rests primarily with poor coin design. I vividly remember my first trip to the UK after the introduction of the one-pound coin. Unlike the Susan B. Anthony and Sacagawea $1 coins, the thick, heavy pound – though small in diameter – cannot be mistaken for any lesser coin, either singly in the hand or jumbled in the pocket. It’s a perfect little coin. Using it instead of a pound note is a joy.

Since coins last longer than paper money, replacing dollar bills with coins would save the Treasury a lot of money – according to an estimate that goes back as far as 1997, $150 million a year. Still the Treasury hasn’t taken this common-sense step.

Another roadblock to widespread adoption of a dollar coin is the business interest of Crane & Co., the politically powerful Massachusetts firm that manufactures the linen for US currency. One should never underestimate the power of one or two beholden US Senators.

Nonetheless, upon the introduction of a well-designed dollar coin, public demand would militate in its favor and against further use of the dollar bill, which would die out, and rather quickly, as people discovered how much more convenient it was not have to go into their wallets for day-to-day purchases of gum, newspapers and beer.

Instead, we are getting more commemorative collectibles. The Treasury will raise a bunch of money in one burst, as with the 50-state quarters. Machines will dispense the new coins as change, but hardly anyone will use them otherwise. Inertia will reign once again, and we’ll continue to fish for those filthy little pieces of paper every other minute.

Thanks a lot, Uncle Sam.

Now, about those pennies…

DVD Review: Serenity

Joss Whedon’s star-crossed TV space-western Firefly comes full circle this week with the DVD release of its feature film follow-up, Serenity. Thanks to devoted fans, the poorly marketed and quickly cancelled series did so well in its DVD release that Universal gave Whedon a green light to bring his crew of ragged, wisecracking space outlaws to the big screen. And now, just months after leaving the theaters, they’re shrunk onto a shiny little disk you can watch at home on your TV – where, incidentally, you can also catch the original series in rotation on the SciFi Channel.

And Whedon – who declares he’s not interested in making things people will like, only things they’ll love – has served up another lovefest. The film has all the story, drama, and character development a fan of the show could want as well as enough action, humor, and special effects to entertain neophytes. The cast, whose closest thing to a star is Ron Glass of Barney Miller fame, is charming and talented; though good-looking, they seem real enough to convince as fringe members of society. The dialogue is taut and witty, the direction fast-paced without being too busy, the action thrilling and the computer effects seamlessly integrated with the live-action photography.

On the surface, the Serenity universe could hardly be more different from the world Whedon created for his two earlier (and far more successful) TV series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spin-off Angel, which aired for seven and five years respectively. Like Serenity, those shows focussed on scrappy teams of adventurers, but the Buffyverse was infested with supernatural creatures and dominated by mystical powers, demons, magic, religious iconography, gothic romanticism, and a past that reached powerfully into the present. The Serenity “‘verse,” by contrast, is dusty and messy, peopled by thieves, prostitutes, suck-ups, disgruntled veterans, and garden variety assholes, and it’s all about now: today’s heist, tomorrow’s bar fight, next week’s adventure. And although as with most futuristic epics there is a backstory, it exists mostly to explain what made our heroes outlaws.

Like the galaxy of Isaac Asimov’s seminal Foundation trilogy (yes, I know there were more than three books, but there were only three books), Whedon’s futureverse is inhabited only by humans, spread among rich central planets (ruled by the “Alliance”) and poorer, more lawless outer worlds where everyone’s just “folk” and, not coincidentally, most of the action takes place. The story centers on River Tam (Summer Glau), a teenager whose cruel abuse at the hands of Alliance mad scientists has made her into a dangerously unstable human weapon, and her doctor brother who cares for her as they evade the authorities on board Serenity.

Summer Glau in

A ruthless, unnamed Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor in a subtly creepy performance) is sent by the Alliance to recapture River. In the ensuing action, one of the TV series’s interesting mysteries is explained, River has a wonderfully Buffy-like action sequence, freedom of speech and independent thought is championed, and an Emperor-Has-No-Clothes message (very resonant in America circa December 2005) is beamed to the Universe. Our heroes’ climactic battle is waged in defense not of property or homeland, nor even of lives, but of the truth.

Whedon, who both wrote and directed, proves himself as skillful a storyteller in the self-contained movie format as he is in the serial. The most interesting of the DVD’s bonus features are probably the deleted scenes, not because of what they reveal about the story, but because you can really see why every single one of them was unnecessary to the telling of the story and thus correctly dropped from the narrative. There are also some funny outtakes, reflections by the filmmakers on the movie’s unusual path to creation, and appreciations of and by the fans who made it possible. But the main reason you’d want to own this movie is that it’s worth more than one viewing. The details of the cinematography, the fast pace of the action and dialogue, and the pathos of the ending all become richer upon a second (and third) look.

Indie Round-Up for Dec. 15 2005: Panic Division, Mankita, McMullen

Welcome to this week’s Indie Round-Up. Here in New York City we’re facing the threat of a transit strike, which feels like a mini-apocalypse in the making. So Aaron McMullen’s gritty urban folk music is fitting. Jay Mankita’s gentler songs are a balm. And Panic Division – well, the name feels just about right for this moment in this place. Read on.

Panic Division, Versus

This is corporate noise-pop at pretty close to its worst. Polished, professional, and forgettable, its headbanging rhythms, frantic power chords and circular melodies add up to empty grandiosity. Here and there, as in “Paradise” with its skewed beat and U2-borrowed melody, and in the moody “Little Child,” Panic Division comes up with something slightly more interesting to listen to, but even those bits are too derivative to say anything even slightly important. We heard early U2 back in the days of early U2; a faster version of Flock of Seagulls isn’t going to turn anyone’s world upside down either. These guys should be doing something more original with their musical talents.

Jay Mankita, Morning Face

Last time we covered Jay Mankita’s lighter-side CD. Today we discuss his more serious recent recording, Morning Face, which shows off his quirky, jazzy-bluesy songs, deft acoustic guitar work, and subtle take on the human condition. Everything Mankita does here is understated, and the more effective thereby. Graham Nash and early Simon and Garfunkel come to mind, but Mankita has a bluesier style than most guitar-folkies.

Songs like “Shadow” reflect his facility with children’s music, but it’s no kids’ song: “Shadow, shadow, you already know/You shadow of my former self, you’ve got to let me go.” The title track has a lilting, playful melody too, but there’s an adult sadness to the lyrics: “I bring to you my morning face, my morning face/My face before the thoughts rush in, before the waters of the flood rush in.” This is an evocation of childlike simplicity by a wistful adult mind that can’t quite recreate it.

Can’t always, anyway. Children and adults would both enjoy the delightful “Bread Alone” and “Rain Rain.” The latter unifies nature and humanity by calling on rain to “bring us life again,” wind to blow down “the foolish houes I build if they won’t bend,” and a ray of sunlight to “melt away the icy words I spoke to you today.”

In “How Deep And Wide,” a simple Donovan-like tune with a creepy minor-key break alternates with a traditional-dance instrumental theme and a folk-rock chorus a la the Roches. That structural complexity is of a piece with the irregular rhythms of the wordless “Finny in The Long Run,” the jazzy harmonics of “Worms in the Night,” and the jiglike but harmonically complex “Sliwa the Cat,” which picks up on the Celtic dance theme and adds a merry concertina to the mix.

Jay Mankita uses bits and pieces from various folk traditions to say his piece. His generous talent and heart will bring warmth to the spirits of – to use an overused but useful cliche – children of all ages. His CDs are available at CD Baby here.

Aaron McMullen, 75mg

Aaron McMullen’s latest lo-fi Web album is another collection of miniature slices of life in the dual locales of drunken urban streets and a sensitive mess of grey matter circa 2005, and circa any year. Many of the songs have a fragmentary nature, but some, such as The Nick Cave-like “Sad Song Sung” and the dramatic-as-Brel “City Country City,” display an increasing songwriting maturity on the part of this fella who’s always had a way with words: “Oh, here in the dark beneath these sheets,/I watched a play performed by spirits midst the twisting waves of heat/And when the play was through, I had a wakin dream a you.”

Behold a true Irish poet of the back alleys. “Oh, and the queen done propositioned me,/He had a song he sang to me/Was a tattered love song, ode to someone chewed the soul from outta him/But the song that snared my senses, yeah,/Wasn’t his, was someone else’s, yeah/And I can’t recall a single line,/An I never heard that song again.” Treading the knife edge of consciousness, these songs pull on you like a feral cat its prey. If he builds up his vocal power McMullen could make a serious impact with language like this.

Indie Round-Up for December 1 2005

Danielia Cotton, Small White Town

This lady can sing; she can rock; and she’s clearly got some serious backing, since she’s netted opening slots for Bon Jovi, Living Colour, Collective Soul and more. Perhaps Danielia Cotton’s a dynamo on stage – her take-no-prisoners vocals give that impression – but underwhelming material makes this CD a disappointment. The songs, in general, are insufficiently memorable, and, strangely for a rock album, the electric guitars sound thin.

Of the rockers, I liked “Today,” which has a good hook to go with its chunky beat. And Cotton makes some fruitful moves away from rock, into neo-soul territory for “4 A Ride” and the passion-drenched “Shame”; and back in time for the ballad “Pride,” which sounds like it could have been an Aretha Franklin track from the late sixties. Another positive: the downright inspiring, powerhouse vocal arrangements in “It’s Only Life,” “Take My Heart,” and the acoustic-electronic closer “Chains,” among others.

But overall, and particularly as far as her hard stuff goes, this Hendrix- and Led Zeppelin-inspired artist needs better material to make the most of her powerful pipes.

Tina Dico, In the Red

To make a horrid generalization: pop music from Europe often sounds behind the times. The Danish star Tina Dico’s first US and UK release, with its 1970s feel, is no exception and by rights should feel pretty old-hat. But Dico’s songwriting ability and lyrical seriousness give the music a timeless quality, and sometimes untrendiness is cool. The contemplative “Warm Sand” and the gripping “Head Shop” are two prime examples of her straightforward attack.

That 1970s feel is found primarily in Dico’s strong, relatively uninflected singing style and close harmonies, which suggest earlier Northern European pop acts like Ace of Base, the Corrs and even Abba. But those groups had an intentional frilliness which Tina Dico does not share. Her sombre melodies and introspective lyrics are fetching in quite a different way. If music can be said to be both heavy-hearted and uplifting, that’s Tina Dico.

Vulnerability is nice when tastefully done, but there’s too much tasteless whining in female folk-pop (not to mention male alt-rock) these days. There’s much to be said for letting a song’s message come through unimpeded. Dico shows some welcome rawness in a few songs, like the lovely “Room With a View,” but as a whole this CD is a statement of the power rather than the lossiness of romance, and a bracing antidote to the pseudo-girlie, affected breathiness that habitually let down today’s would-be rock or folk-pop music fan.

And for unconditional emotion from the male point of view, check out Steve Northeast‘s intense little self-titled EP. These four heavily emotional power-pop songs, with their focussed message and structure, charge directly into your brain, barreling through all pretense. It’s straight-from and straight-to-the-heart stuff that speaks for the romantic, the idealist, the lover, the hopeless (or hopeful) devotee, the Icarus, the Abelard in us all. And it’s a firm marriage of song and sound. “I want to share with you the air I breathe. I’m not pretending anymore – you are everything to me.” Indeed.

Jay Mankita, Dogs Are Watching Us

Satire is always welcome in grim times, and since times are pretty much always grim, a good-natured but sharply clever songsmith like Jay Mankita has an important place in the musical rainbow. You can hear his smile in every lyric: in places he almost bursts into laughter while singing. The songs are by turns biting, funny, and touching; some are childlike enough to work as kids’ songs (not surprisingly, he does do children’s concerts); but he tucks thematic complexities into his simple descriptive accounts. The two anti-Bush tracks are clever and funny, but it’s in the quirkier ditties, like the weird “Little Soap” and the cockeyed, mushy “Tracy At the Bat,” where Mankita stands out from the crowd of musical satirists – a crowd that’s actually pretty small. Rapping Beastie-Boys-style about the philosophical quandaries of the Big Bang Theory, he doesn’t have to explain that just because a scientific theory isn’t fully worked out doesn’t mean it isn’t true. The message is implied, and well received.

I enjoyed this CD immensely, and Mankita also has another, more straight-ahead modern folk album which I’ll cover in a future column. All his CDs are available at CD Baby here.