Music Review: Indie Round-Up for Nov. 30 2006 – Burden Brothers, Caddle, D’Haene

With stellar songwriting, crisp but heavy production, and roadkill vocals, the Burden Brothers prove that rock can still rock.

Burden Brothers, Mercy

The Burden Brothers are the creation of one of modern rock’s great voices – Toadies’ Vaden Todd Lewis – and drummer Taz Bentley, formerly of the Reverend Horton Heat. With a supporting cast of guitar-slingers, they’ve put out a nearly hourlong CD that, unlike many such productions, doesn’t get tired halfway through.

Opening with the spooky, Beatle-esque “It’s Time,” the CD charges ahead with the Foo Fighters-style screamer “Shine” and the infectious, almost old-fashioned melodiousness of “Still.” The angst-laden “Everybody Is Easy” is superior, catchy rock despite its vague lyrics.

The polyrhythmic “Trick of Logic,” the ballad “Life Between,” the Nirvana-inspired “Good Night From Chicago,” and the grim “Daughter of Science” all further the story – each song has its own flavor, so the ear never gets tired. The titanic “I Am a Cancer” plunges into heavy metal gloom, and when, in “In My Sky,” Lewis grammarlessly screams, “You and me can slip away at last tonight/I can see your stars are shining in my sky,” the combination of primal yell with romantic words lays bare the heart of the album. “On Our Own” then tells the other side: “Just wave as you roll past my cloud/We’re all on our own now.” But our hero is still wishing on a star. The song has an elegiac quality to it, and seems a natural end to the CD – but two of the best tracks remain.

The thrumming, roiling love song “Oh, Cecilia” couches sentiments of longing in alternately warbling and harsh guitars. “Liberated,” a memorable declaration of freedom (with a caveat about high gas prices), is a near-perfect midtempo rock song, earning its full six minutes with a muscled vocal/instrumental hook.

Every track on the CD is worth hearing. Stellar songwriting, crisp but heavy production, and Lewis’s roadkill vocals make this one of the year’s top rock albums. Its fifteen tracks make a major statement: rock can still rock.

Caddle, Raise ‘Em High Dixie fried roots-rock? Southern boogie-rock skullabilly? Whatever you call Caddle, the Birmingham AL band’s debut CD is spring-loaded with southern-rock energy. Think back to the Georgia Satellites, or even Lynyrd Skynyrd, but add a bit of punk crunch and a touch of Big-and-Rich buffoonery.

A chinkling banjo enlivens the humor in the hard-rocking “Better Bad.” (“She’s got a wiggle and walks with a grin/Where she stops I begin…When she’s good she’s really bad but when she’s bad she’s better.”) The openers, “Mississippi Doublewide” and “Work,” are raucous, defiantly high-spirited blue-collar anthems whose minimalist choruses represent the bleakness of the working man’s life. “Stay With Me” shows that the band is handy with a sad love song too.

But Caddle’s overriding theme is much more serious: drinking in bars. The narrator of “Afternoon Lies” is a bar owner, in fact: “The sun never shines on the inside of this bar of mine/The beer is cold and the stories told are sure to blow your mind.” The title track says it best: “Money’s leavin’ but I’m staying/Sling another drink to me/Party till it’s morning/Baby what’s your sign?/Daddy’s got a brand new bag/Livin’ on a dime.”

The CD is a very enjoyable ride. It might have one power ballad too many, although “Give Me A Dollar” is a fine one – guess what he needs the dollar for? (Hint: it has flashing lights, it’s often found in a bar, and it plays music.) So, in spite of a slight sag in the center, Caddle’s debut – unlike the protagonists in most of the songs – comes up a big winner.

Extended clips can be heard here.

D’Haene, Brother Man

D’Haene merges soulful, lived-in vocals with funky guitar and hard rock riffs. In spite of a 70s classic rock influence, the mixing of genres and the wry, intelligent lyrics make the disc sound modern.

One minute you’ll be reminded of Randy Newman, the next of Blue Oyster Cult, then you’re grooving to some funk-jam band at a hygiene-deficient festival in upstate New York. Sometimes these shifts occur within a single song. “Feelin’ Human,” which, at just over five minutes, is of average length for this CD, is a mini-sonata, something like the early Who or Elton John might have done.

Bob D’Haene’s voice isn’t always up to the ambitions of his music, but the CD has a number of strong points. Extended clips can be heard here.

NEWS ABOUT NOTES: Copeland, a band Blogcritics has been all over (here, here, and here, at least), has signed with Columbia Records. The band’s new CD, Eat, Sleep, Repeat, entered the Billboard Top 200 best-selling albums chart at #90. The band is currently on tour with The Appleseed Cast.

When a band we’ve covered here at the Indie Round-Up jumps to a major label, we have to stop talking about them. So let’s listen to some Caddle while we break open a six-pack and send Copeland off into the world of, we hope, bigger and bigger success.

Cross-posted at Blogcritics Magazine

Book Review: All You Need To Know About the Music Business: 6th Edition by Donald S. Passman

A classic of music industry literature, this title has been a must-have for aspiring and working music industry pros since it first appeared in 1991. But with all the new ways music is being made, discovered, and acquired, Donald S. Passman, a practicing music attorney for 30 years, has, not surprisingly, updated the book a number of times. This new edition retains his knack for explaining tricky legal and financial concepts in plain English. Its near-encyclopedic coverage of the music business’s many aspects makes it as valuable as ever, while a goofy sense of humor helps lighten up the proceedings.

Notable among the book’s virtues, the author takes pains to explain both sides of contractual matters that commonly need to be worked out among artists, songwriters, record labels, merchandisers, managers, agents, movie producers and others. Rather than just “Here’s what you should ask for,” Passman also describes the argument against the artist’s position and what he or she should realistically expect based on level of accomplishment (starting-out, midlevel, or superstar).

Passman is a practicing attorney who works with major clients, like R.E.M. and Janet Jackson. Reading through the long section about record deals, the typical musician could be forgiven for wondering whether the book might have been better shelved in the fantasy aisle. The percentage of aspiring musical artists who will ever need the bulk of Passman’s advice in this section is minuscule.

The sections on publishing, touring, and TV and film, however, contain much important information about areas in which the lowly beginner is most likely already working (or thinking seriously about). Many of the issues covered, like what kinds of arrangements band members should make among themselves, do need to be thought out at the beginning, before any major success occurs, even if the chances of that success are low. Anyone making a serious go at a music career will find valuable and necessary information and advice in at least some sections of this book.

Unlike most people I know in the music industry, Passman doesn’t think it’s broken. Noting its history of ups and downs, he believes big music’s current woes are just another downturn, a period of adjustment to new technologies. Such optimism is so unusual today as to seem almost wacky. One suspects that Passman’s own success as an entertainment attorney has stranded him in the rarefied atmosphere of the very top, where artists still sign (or dream of signing) major deals. Other than some rappers, I don’t know any artists who still think signing a major label deal is a good thing (though there must be some out there).

Passman does explain how such deals have changed in recent years, what the trends are, what realistic numbers are for deals with independent labels as well as majors, and so on. He covers current issues like digital downloads, and he gets all the way down to the nitty-gritty of t-shirt sales and other practical matters that come up as artists move up (or sideways). Since in its details the book remains realistic, I recommend it for anyone who wants to climb on the big scary jungle gym of the music business at any level. Not only artists – also pure songwriters, managers, promoters, lawyers, and anyone who aspires to those positions – will benefit. Read through the part about the label deals to learn how things used to be. Read through the rest, substituting – if you’re an artist – “you” for “your label,” and Passman’s advice and inside information remain invaluable.

Music Review: Indie Round-Up for Nov. 16 2006 – Copeland, Wolfkin, Jason Vigil

Copeland, Eat, Sleep, Repeat

Copeland‘s third CD is a sharp turn towards the brooding sound of Radiohead. On first listen it seems self-conscious, as if the band had deliberately set out to make an Important Record. Aaron Marsh’s distinctive tenor is as full of passion as ever, but individually the songs (with a few partial exceptions, like “Control Freak”) aren’t melodically memorable. The intention seems to be more to make an album-length statement, almost a concept composition, and in this the CD succeeds, with numerous interesting twists, lush and sometimes unusual instrumentation, and a bit of rhythmic experimentation. I liked it very much as a whole. Fans of the band’s earlier, harder, more hooky rock are, understandably, having a variety of reactions.

Is Eat, Sleep, Repeat really an Important Record? In the sense that no one else is filling the void Radiohead left when they went deeply experimental, I’d say yes. Certainly Copeland could end up an important band. On the other hand, with the major labels no longer in the business of putting out innovative rock, what gets seared into the musical consciousness of new generations is up to the tastes and the clout of countless smaller labels and their use of new methods to promote and distribute their music. Signed to The Militia Group, Copeland is certainly positioned well. But only time will tell.

Wolfkin, Brand New Pants

If you think Scandinavian pop is all shiny-happy Ace of Base stuff, this Danish band will show you otherwise. Wolfkin‘s debut CD uses plenty of synthesizer sounds along with guitar, bass and drums, but it’s in the service of a smart vision. They filter elements of rock, pop and dance music into a strong, dark modern brew. Sung in English, the music is creative, fun, and sometimes funny, but the lyrics are often visceral and grim: “The Devil knit the shirts we’re in we choose to call it skin/That shrunken little thing you call your heart.” At the same time, being not-quite native English speakers, their syntax makes for interesting verbal curiosities: “When you walk barefoot through the room/I instantaneously enter my bloom like deliberately.” They run a bit low on creative steam on the second half of the CD, where playfulness gives way to a certain sameness, but overall the disc makes a musical statement that, after several listens, may worm its way into your own shrunken little heart.

Jason Vigil, Heart Gone Sober

Jason Vigil’s hybrid of anthemic alt-rock and heartland howling seems at first to have too much bluster, but by the end of the CD it has earned its drama. Though Vigil and his band are very good at sustaining moods (and playing their instruments), many of the lyrics are just strings of relationship homilies set to run-of-the-mill melodies. Yet at his best, as in “So Tell me,” Vigil evokes the gravelly passion of an Ed Kowalczyk.

At other times he sings breathily (as in “Hurts To Be Without”), or pronounces things strangely (as in “Safety’s Gone,” where you have to look at the lyrics to know that he’s singing “I don’t want to be down” and not “I don’t want to be dead”), for cheap effect. But then comes the icepick-powerful “Looking in the Sun” and the unique bolt of lightning “Come To Me,” and it all seems worth it.

When all is said and done, this CD is a pleasure to listen to, but, hook-wise, after three listens, nothing has stuck in my head. Your mileage may vary; it’s worth a try because it’s good stuff in many ways. Extended clips can be heard here.

Theater Review: Love, Death, and Interior Decorating (two one-act plays by Keith Boynton)

Though not long out of college, playwright Keith Boynton has a marvelously clever and pointed way with words. “Stoppardian” has become a cliche, but there is a pithiness and playfulness in his dialogue that suggests happy inspiration from the great wordsmiths of the modern stage. Boynton puts this facility in the service of two stories, on the surface quite different, but underneath betraying parallel narrative flow and concerns. The result is a resonant evening of theater, although the two approaches – one story quotidian, the other mythically grand – do not, ultimately, succeed equally well.

The first play, Walls, is a taut, tense and funny two-character dramatization of what would seem a rather unremarkable situation. An old flame returns, complicating the life of a woman who is trying to get over her father’s recent death by throwing herself into renovating his house. Carter (Mike LaVoie), the clean-cut interloper, hides his emotions behind a wit that’s too ready for his own good, but as the dance of words progresses we begin to see the fragile nobility that made Gail (Joan Kubicek) like him so much in the first place. With their sturdy, snappy performances these two robust actors fully inhabit the aggressive dialogue, compacting its larger-than-life directness and its writerly cleverness into refreshingly homey art. Thus the magic of theater. These two characters deserve each other – in a good way. Just the right length, the story ends with a satisfying punch. Directed fluidly by the author, the play is a small gem.

Mike Lavoie and Joan Kubicek in Walls. Photo courtesy of DARR Publicity

The second play, The Quotable Assassin, is a period drama in which the life of a condemned revolutionary, Simon (Boynton), is spared temporarily through the influence of Lucia (Roya Shanks), a popular novelist who wishes to base her latest work on his life. During a series of prison-cell interviews, defenses break down on both sides. Shanks is utterly convincing as the hyper-cultured, emotionally pent-up celebrity author who, Capote-like, bonds fatefully with her murderous subject. Her inner struggles play out in her every expression and gesture. She’s an absolute joy. Boynton, however, makes his character rather too self-consciously charismatic, embracing his own elevated language so lovingly that instead of living through the words he turns speech into an end in itself. While this makes for an entertaining character, sometimes fascinating and always fun to watch and listen to, we don’t see in his idealistic smartass the likeable side that Lucia sees.

There’s also a late plot twist that seems unnecessary (and makes the play too long). Like the perfectly paced Walls, The Quotable Assassin is fundamentally a painfully human story of self-discovery that ends with a sad but hopeful departure. Unlike Walls, it suffers from overreach, outgrowing the confines of its one-act format. There’s a wonderful, tight little play in it, but Boynton and the director (his mother, the cartoonist-writer-musician Sandra Boynton), haven’t quite teased it out.

Nonetheless, this is a very worthwhile evening of theater, enlivened by inspired performances, sharp dialogue, and depth of thought.

Through Nov. 18 at Altered Stages in NYC. Tickets available at TheaterMania.

Music Review: Indie Round-Up for Nov. 2 2006

The Ratchets, Glory Bound

This angry, melodic, Clash-inspired punk-and-roll with a message is so perfect in its way I can’t help wondering if it’s an act, and I don’t mean in the sense that all bands are acts. But how can you not like a band with lyrics like “Money makers are coming in their Cadillacs/To watch us eat our lunch/Sloganeers are here with their assholes shined/To beat us to the punch”? In four quick lines they establish both working class cred and clear-eyed political realism.

Their second, endearingly old-fashioned main theme is “rock is our salvation” and they seem to mean it both symbolically and literally: “We’re human amplifiers/Together they can’t deny us;” “it doesn’t matter how firmly you are wound/There’s plenty of people who will try to water you down/Don’t let them drown you.” Sophisticated guitar layering, keyboard touches, and relatively slow tempos contrast effectively with hoarsely shouted vocals.

Harsh, Jimmy Page inspired guitar work livens up the funny, minimalist “Irritated,” while a pop-reggae beat churns through “Ration,” a frustrated love song to someone who’s overly scheduled. The CD’s centerpiece is “Skyjack Sunday Starts,” an ambitious if somewhat confused bass-driven reflection on terrorism in the skies. It’s followed by a return to the regular-guy blues in “Don’t Wanna Go” and “Cathedral Bells.” The latter links a sweet island-music flavor to a catchy rock chorus and is my favorite song on the CD, next to the anthemic “Born Wrong” that closes it.

The straight-ahead reggae “Proclamation Time” reinforces the band’s political stance. They never exactly identify their enemy, but revolution’s clearly in their air they’re breathing. If they mean it, that is. In the age of irony, these things are hard to read. But the inspired lyrics of “Born Wrong” argue strongly for sincerity:

Could you send the word out on scrape-faced Jake?
He lost it all in a burned out wreck
He was a wild card till he hit the floor
Noon tomorrow we’ll bury Jake in the ground
So let’s roll this steel convoy with the pedals down
Mile line glorybound payin’ last respects
We’re born wrong senorita
All along senorita
We’re born wrong.

The band has taken the smart step of streaming the entire CD at their website.

Aaron Comess, Catskills Cry

Aaron Comess, best known as the Spin Doctors’ drummer, has a new CD that can perhaps best be described as ambient rock. On these eleven tracks of thick, richly imagined instrumental music Comess collaborates with guitarist Bill Dillon (Sarah McLachlan, Marc Cohn, Joni Mitchell) and legendary bassist and Chapman stick player Tony Levin. It suggests what might have happened if some pioneering prog-rock band of the 60s or 70s had matured and mellowed. The music is certainly more colorful and expressive sans vocals than a lot of sung music. Underpinned by Comess’s chunky drumming, Dillon’s guitars and guitorgan cook up dense atmospheres, leaving much of the melodic work to Levin. Unconventional time signatures (“Seventy-Six,” “Ode to Attila”) and titanic polyrhythms (“Africa”) give way to devilish gloom-rock (“Future,” “Sky”) and meditative stuff that could almost be smooth jazz (“Zapped.”)

Extended clips can be heard here.

Breaking Laces, Astronomy Is My Life, But I Love You

Breaking Laces makes essentially acoustic-based pop-rock that’s strong and assured, sweet and sometimes funny. One could say “Bowie meets Live,” but there’s also a singer-songwriter aspect to this talented trio that harks back to 1960s folk-rock. There’s nothing new under the Sun (or the Chess or the Motown or the Bomp), but these guys are very good at putting their own twist on the basics. It’s suburban chill music for the post-American Beauty generation. “Promise me that you won’t believe/All the reasons they say you cannot leave/Let’s go, we’ll prove that love is blind/To their holy suburban dividing lines.” Echo and Narcissus, Romeo and Juliet, Buffy and Angel – these stories never get old, and neither will we as long as we have good, grown-up, rock-charged pop like this to listen to.

Extended clips can be heard here.