Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Snider, Tillis, Hammond Jr.

Todd Snider, Peace, Love and Anarchy

The new disc by Todd Snider, heir apparent to John Prine’s corner of the Americana music universe, is billed as “a Set of Rarities, B-Sides and Demos.” But since Snider himself is a rarity and a b-side, what’s the diff?

Normally Snider’s loose, jagged sound is more or less carefully built up in the studio. Here it’s mostly left raw. Many of the tracks have just guitar and vocals. A couple are early versions of songs that later got fancier production; others are true rarities, or items that slipped through the cracks. But each one has at least one pearl of value inside. In fact, this CD has transformed me from a lukewarm Todd Snider fan into a big Todd Snider fan. It reminds of when I first heard Roseanne Cash’s 10-Song Demo, which revealed something more fundamental to me about the artist’s sensibility than I had heard in polished studio recordings.

“Polished” isn’t a word one is inclined to use in the same sentence as “Todd Snider,” and that’s as it should be. This rough-edged set has spare rockers (“Barbie Doll,” “Cheatham Street Warehouse,”) country blues (“Deja Blues”), love songs (“Missing You,” “Feel Like I’m Falling In Love,”), half tongue-in-cheek country numbers inspired by Prine or Jerry Jeff Walker (“Old Friend,” “Combover Blues”), and even a gospel-soul tune “I Will Not Go Hungry.” “Some Things Are” could be a lost Garcia-Hunter number.

The title track from the 2004 release East Nashville Skyline didn’t make it onto that CD. Now we have it:

“Something good comes along / Then it’s gone / Kind of like Phoenix Radio / We used to listen, and where did it go / It went off of the air so that more Sheryl Crow could come on.” Harsh. But – yeah.

The spoken-word “From A Rooftop” has more about the singer’s love affair with East Nashville – and we all have an East Nashville, wherever we may live. “Our skyline – it ain’t very high. But we love it.” Me too, Todd, me too. I feel the same way about Brooklyn. At least for now.

“Old Friend, Old Friend / God knows where we’re goin’ / I guess half the fun’s not knowing where we’ll wind up in the end.”

Pam Tillis, Rhinestoned

Now it’s time for polished.

On Pam Tillis’s first CD for Stellar Cat, her new, personal label, the country star, working with co-producers Matt Spicher and the legendary Gary Nicholson, has exercised complete creative control. The result is a worthy follow-up to It’s All Relative, her 2002 tribute to her father, Mel Tillis. The new disc sounds gorgeous but not overdone, with good songs, which, though by a variety of songwriters, all somehow sound as if they were written specifically for Tillis’s creamy soprano. That’s a tribute not only to the songwriters but to the singer’s assured and always honest delivery.

A lot of Nashville CDs contain only a couple of good songs, with the rest there just so the friends and crew of the label or the singer can make some money from writing credits. On this CD the proportion is reversed, with only a few forgettable tracks getting in the way of the good stuff. The Dixieland-inspired Crazy By Myself (by Matraca Berg) and the spirited, spiritual “Over My Head,” which features Jim Hoke on pennywhistle, are both heart-lighteners. Gloomy heartbreak checks in with Leslie Satcher’s “Something Burning Out,” but “Train Without A Whistle” and the masterful “Someone Somewhere Tonight” better show off Tillis’s ability to pull the heartstrings without seeming manipulative.

The intense story-song “Bettin’ Money On Love” with its recited verses is unusual for Tillis, but she pulls it off with aplomb. “Band in the Window” is an obvious but sprightly tribute to the obscure bands who play the honky-tonk bars right in the shadow of the Opry. In the sweet “Down By the Water” Tillis comes close to the 1970s “hippie country” vibe which, according to her notes, she wanted to suggest with this album. Mostly the CD doesn’t do that. What it does, though, is give us some real country music, unlike some of the other styles the singer has tried on over the years. The modern (slick, if you will) production remains tasteful, not getting in the way of the singer or the songs. And it holds together as an album – you can listen to and enjoy the whole thing through.

Recommended for country fans and all lovers of delicious singing.

Albert Hammond, Jr., Yours To Keep

The guitarist and singer/songwriter Albert Hammond, Jr., best known as a member of The Strokes, released his first solo CD last Fall in the U.K. It’s out now in North America and definitely worth a listen.

Not Strokes-like, Hammond’s pastel-pop songs and arrangements dab together several strains of pop-rock into a landscape that’s bright and extremely accessible, yet original enough to be an interesting place to spend some quality time. He and his team – producer Greg Lattimer and engineer Gus Oberg, plus a number of guest artists including Sean Lennon – crunch together strains of Sgt. Pepper, Tommy James, 70s glam, 80s precision, and the chamber pop of the 90s and today.

Hammond’s lead vocals are modest but confident, and he has full-fledged songwriting skills. The lyrics don’t make much sense, but it doesn’t matter at all, because the drama and the pleasure is in the music. When you do pay attention to the lyrics, they seem to wink at you, and you feel that you’re in on a joke. From “Hard To Live In The City”:

There’s something about you that I couldn’t tell
And you were always crazy
And I don’t like that
There’s something about you that I knew so well
To all those questions I have no answers
I wish that I could sit in the sun

Me too, Albert, me too.

Like the Animators, but a little more lighthearted and poppy, Hammond proves that the artistic integrity of adult rock and pop is as strong as ever, with new generations of musicians continuing to expand the field. It’s hard to pick favorite songs here, but a few of mine are the swinging “Call An Ambulance,” the John Lennon-inspired “Blue Skies,” and the falsetto-fueled, bell-like “In Transit.”

The anxious, insistent guitar tones of “101” and the tense “Scared,” with its melodic echo of “Cruel To Be Kind” and psychedelic chorus, help give the largely sunny CD some bite. It closes with two well-chosen covers, Guided By Voices’ “Postal Blowfish” and the Buddy Holly chestnut “Well All Right,” which serve as bookends to the vast shelf of pop from which Hammond draws his inspiration.

Highly recommended.

Hear some tracks at his Myspace page.

Theater Review: f-ckplays

Do not be put off by the overtly provocative title. fuckplays is real theater and serious business – seriously funny, for one thing. The eight short plays that comprise it are all about sex, but unlike the real thing may do, they neither disappoint nor try too hard. It’s an evening of real excitement, putting one in mind of headier eras in picturesque countries where live theater had the power to make audiences go nuts.

In the screechingly funny opening salvo, Joshua Hill’s The Impotence of Being Ernest, two juddering fops transform a conversation with frank but unremarkable subject matter into sidesplitting absurdity. It’s a hilarious demonstration of the way language, enlivened by razor-sharp acting, can make a scrap of conversation into something bigger and even more delightfully ridiculous than life.

Marriage Play by Bekah Brunstetter takes on the affection problems that married couples often develop, but places them in the context of gustatory gluttony and wide-angle humor. Erin McCarson and Jared Culverhouse are a sitcom couple boiled to the nth degree, randy and sad, voluptuous and touching. Their nostalgia for more innocent times leads them unexpectedly to a happy, absurd and silly breakthrough.

The production takes a sharp turn in Casey Wimpee’s Arms and the Octopus. This remarkable play gives a wrenching twist to an Islamic terrorist’s myth of heaven. As his joyous dream ratchets into nightmare, Amir (the agile, acidic Julian James Mohamed) is literally and figuratively torn apart by a trio of Sirens (led by the assured Kaci Gober) who Just Aren’t Having It. Despite its serious subject matter, the deep, powerful little play maintains the manic energy that preceded it – as well as a measure of the humor, though here it becomes the scary sort.

(L to R) Kaci Gober, Eboni Hogan and Elizabeth Kensek as the ‘virgins’ in Julian James Mohamed’s harem in f**kplays at the Ohio Theatre and Galapagos Art Space, March 28-April 27, 2007. Photo by Reedfa.

Act One closes with an original and funny take on the games of intimacy and distance that lovers play. In Justin Cooper’s Wood, a socially hapless ventriloquist (Steven Strobel) uses his… no, I can’t give it away. But Amy Lynn Stewart is certainly one of the more convincing and entertaining nymphomaniacs you’ll see on the stage.

The road gets a little bumpy in the second act. Greg Romero’s Sharpen My Dick is like a little circus gone horribly wrong – it makes no sense, but it’s funny and entertaining. Candy Room by William Charles Mery loses a bit of momentum as it sketches some stereotypical New York characters and relationships. Aiming for the quivering underbelly of vapid TV shows like Friends, it isn’t sharply realized enough to hit the mark. Even so, it has some quite funny moments, and it has excellent music by Linda Dowdell.

The dark matter of Kyle Jarrow’s noirish The Saddest Thing in the History of World is brightened by appropriately dry performances by Michael Mason and Elliotte Crowell. Its played-sort-of-for-laughs gore brings us to the evening’s closer: Eric Sanders’s gross, lunatic 1.1-1.7. Directed by Stephen Brackett, who recently did such an admirable job with the flawed Hotel Oracle, this crazily inventive two-character play is a miniature epic of nauseating foulness – and true love. Told in a stutter of short scenes, with nothing but plain words, between Richie (Cole Wimpee) and Donna (Nell Mooney) – two heroic performers – the play gives new meaning to the phrase “disgustingly sweet.” Cathartic, nay, emetic, it’s simply brilliant.

Bolstering the strong material and uniformly good performances is solid directorial talent. Each playlet has its own director, including some very accomplished ones like Thomas Caruso and NYIT Best Director Award winner Isaac Byrne. Equally important are the loose transitions, which create a celebratory atmosphere that makes the audience part of the show. All told, fuckplays is an embarrassment of seriously sexed-up riches.

fuckplays moves to Galapagos Art Space in Brooklyn starting this Friday and runs Fridays only through April 27. Tickets at SmartTix or call 212-868-4444.

Theater Review: Jean Genet’s The Balcony

The playwright and novelist Jean Genet may be as famous for his life as for his work. His early stints in jail certainly informed his stagecraft. The Balcony, a claustrophobic acting-out of the interchangeability of illusion and reality, is no exception.

Genet’s best known play, The Blacks, directed by Gene Frankel (RIP), had the longest off-Broadway run of any straight play in the 1960s. The Balcony, too, has a notable history that includes – after various international bannings – a 1960 Peter Brook production in Paris, and a New York debut at Circle in the Square which starred Nancy Marchand and Sylvia Miles. However, while it is interesting as a psychological study and says something about its times, as drama it’s lacking.

The plot, such as it is, can be summed up very quickly: when a violent revolution deposes the authorities, a group of role-players from a whorehouse-dungeon get drafted to fulfill the functions of the characters they’ve been play-acting. In this unabridged production the story runs three and a half hours, including an intermission. It is educational, but not edifying, to see the fulness of what Genet intended, since much of the play, including almost the entire second act, is an incoherent jumble.

It’s not the fault of the new translation – by the director, Barbara Vann – which seems fluid enough. Vann also plays the demanding, central role of Madame Irma, with a stinky-sweet, dilapidated grandeur that, early on, rivets the attention. Within the relatively safe haven of her “House of Illusion” – a combination whorehouse and S&M role-playing dungeon, warrened with mirrors, costumes and sets – the “girls,” still much in demand amidst the chaos outside, press on providing their services while Madame anxiously awaits the arrival of the Chief of Police and his assurance of protection.

The patrons, as much as the staff, are under no illusions about their illusions. “My being a Judge,” says the pompous “Judge” to the girl who works his scene, “is an emanation of your being a thief.” But to some of the “girls” their roles become more than mere jobs. Carmen (Louise Martin) talks about her favorite role while helping with the accounts, declaiming to the fidgety, reality-dependent Irma that “Your bookkeeping wll never replace my apparition.” “I have my games,” Irma fires back, “and you have your orgies of the heart.”

Meanwhile Chantal (the stunning Shruti Shah) has left the whorehouse and become a living symbol of the revolution. We all tread the line between reality and illusion.

Yes, we get it. The three opening scenes – the best part of the play – make the point quite well. The mincing, effulgent, vain Bishop; the proud Judge who wants to dominate but also to be dominated, just a little; and the silver-tongued, half-mad General who makes his whore his horse – all bloviate effectively about the psychological and philosophical meaning of their roleplay. It’s just the sort of thing an intellectual in prison would have plenty of time to ponder (and, in this case, note down).

It’s also not the fault of the performances. There is amateurishness in a few of the minor roles, but the central characters come vividly, indeed campily, to life. In particular, Peter Schmitz’s old coot of a “General” is a fascinatingly bizarre character, and Martin has several wonderful speeches. A choreographed conversation in Act II has an effective elegance, while Ron Dreyer as the brothel’s assistant/man-about-the-house brings a touchingly cloddish sadness to his scenes.

The early role-playing scenes contain most of the S&M elements that scandalized audiences and authorities of the 1950s. By today’s standards, they are so tame as to be barely noticeable; what a difference a half-century makes. For the homoerotic elements, one must wait till very near the end, by which time one has grown too impatient to care. After the too-long scene that makes up the second half of Act I, and the interminable political grandstanding of Act II, broken only by occasional flashes of humor and clarity, we just want to escape the prison with Genet and get out into the world, even if the streets are running with blood.

The Medicine Show Theatre in New York City presents The Balcony through April 21. Tickets online at SmartTix or call 212-868-4444.

Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Larsen, Heyman, Everybody Else, Assembly, Brooklyn Rep

Olav Larsen & the Alabama Rodeo Stars, Love’s Come To Town

This charming set of Americana-by-way-of-Norway hits all the right notes, so to speak. The band brightens up Larsen’s traditional sounding, but occasionally quirky, roots-rock and country songs with homespun energy. The musicians bed the songs in endearingly shambling arrangements that perfectly complement the songwriter’s jaunty, somewhat wobbly vocals.

This band of Europeans has thoroughly absorbed, digested and done right by Americana music, while giving it just enough of their own flavor to make it interesting. The songs range from Dylan-esque wistfulness (“May the Sun Always Shine”) to bluegrass shenanigans (“Ain’t Got Time”); from a splash of dixieland and ragtime (“Atomic Bombs and Wine”) to sweet, shimmering rambles (“Love’s Come to Town,” “Like Daisies”); and from the hillbilly gospel of “The Sweet Saviour’s Arms” to the grim, cautionary “Unhappy/Dreamer”:

I never thought that you would leave this town behind.
Your unpredicted departure almost destroyed my mind.
You didn’t even say goodbye to your friends: unkind.
I guess there’s something bigger going on this time.

The slightly off-kilter lyrics – perhaps from English not being Larsen’s native language – has a paradoxical effect of making them seem sly and heartfelt at the same time. How could anyone resist this: “When you say jump, I’ll jump for you baby. / When you say run, I’ll run for you too. / I’ll do anything you want me to / And you can call me baby!”

Highly recommended for country-rock and Americana fans. Hear some full tracks at their Myspace page.

Richard X. Heyman, Actual Sighs

One-man rock band Richard X. Heyman’s new release is a blast from power-pop’s past and a new work at the same time. The CD is packed with twenty songs, the first fourteen of which are new recordings of old compositions – most written in the early 80s – that never got recorded before. The last six are a reworking of the EP Actual Size, which Heyman put out himself, to critical acclaim but with limited distribution, in 1986.

It’s hard to imagine any Heyman fan not being over the moon with this collection, or any fan of rock, classic rock and power-pop not finding much to like. No doubt, Heyman’s musical vision is a little old-fashioned, but mainly in the sense that it is a powerful, emotional tapestry of male rock without whininess. Heyman fits together big collections of instruments and tracks – all played by him, except for the strings and horns – into ever-evolving, mind-grabbing, crisp but not cluttered arrangements – the rock equivalent of what a great classical or Broadway orchestrator does.

The greatest studio bands of past decades – like Yes, Led Zeppelin, Crowded House, Smashing Pumpkins, and of course the Beatles and George Martin – could orchestrate pop in that way. Most rock bands and producers nowadays, too worried about trying to sound like somebody else, shy away from the interesting.

Heyman doesn’t have that problem. He’s an original. The opening orchestral theme of “Kenyon Walls” (it suggests Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir,” but played on real horns and strings instead of a Mellotron), leads straight into the pounding, multi-voiced chorus. Right away we’re introduced to Richard X. Heyman the confident guitarist and piano player, but above all (or behind all) the frighteningly good drummer. (This is borne out in live performance; it’s worth seeing anyone he’s backing up on the skins.)

If there was any doubt, the thunderous drum intro of the fist-thumping “Stockpile” blasts it away. Think Georgia Satellites on speed. Heyman does more things on the drums in these two and a half minutes than most drummers do in their band’s whole set.

There’s no let-up in the midtempo “All In the Way You Found Me,” with its rueful Byrds/Petty chord changes, rich pop harmonies, and throaty organ solo. The deceptively simple-sounding “Winter Blue” harks back to art-rock. If you’re old enough you might remember when Genesis toned its histrionics way down, but hadn’t yet made the move to machine-pop. Such references aren’t out of place with Heyman, who’s been writing songs since 1969, though his major label period was twenty years later.

More highlights: the caffeinated, drum-drowned rave-up “Twelve Boxcars and I Still Have the Blues”; the groovy, Zombies-like harmonies of “In a Boxcar”: and the grandiose marching lines of “A Fine Line.” And that’s only on the first half. Small gems like the ballad “Written All Over My Face,” together with ambitious ones like “The Gazing Moon,” poke out of this overstuffed CD’s “Side B” like fighting limbs. It’s too much to listen to straight through, actually. On the other hand, Heyman is one of the few artists who can put out a twenty-song disc without ever succumbing to a flaccid or disinterested vibe.

With all the sound and fury, not every song here will appeal to everyone. But it’s certainly fair to say that smart rock doesn’t get much better than this.

Hear extended clips at CD Baby.

Everybody Else, Everybody Else

Speaking of power-pop, it ain’t just old-timers like Richard X. Heyman bringing the joyful noise. Score another one for The Militia Group for their pickup of L.A. trio Everybody Else.

Mixing Squeeze-like pop sophistication with bubblegum, then spiking it with raunchy guitar, the band has hit on a sweet formula for their debut full-length CD. There’s nothing terribly original here, but with their smart use of pop conventions and powerful knack for hooky melodies, Everybody Else has no need to reinvent the wheel – they just have to set it on fire, and they do, with songs like the infectious, anti-love callout “Meat Market” and the Matchbox 20-like “I Gotta Run.” “In Memoriam” is an irresistible nostalgia trip, while “Born To Do” grinds out the jagged edge of love, with choked-off chords evoking the sinister humor of the Toadies. “Rich Girls, Poor Girls” is funny, imagistic and touching all at the same time:

the rich girls see the curving of the earth
when flying over kansas city
but ice cream music floats along the hills
of where we’re living
and those poor girls know the feeling of
the playground bench with darkness bleeding
like a palm tree, dreaming

i love you even though you got no dough

rich girls, poor girls
i just can’t decide…

The fine songwriting continues throughout the CD – there isn’t one weak song. “The Longest Hour of My Life” sounds like a lost 1970s pop hit, while “Button for Punishment” shows the band can also do a memorable acoustic ballad. The CD actually closes with one of its strongest tracks: the electronica-flavored “Alone in the World” is the kind of song Duran Duran might have had a smash with.

An impressive, spirited debut, highly recommended.

Assembly of Dust, Recollection

Assembly of Dust is the current project of Reid Genauer (Strangefolk, Phil Lesh and Friends). The band tours on the jam band circuit, but the best songs on this, its third studio album, have roots in 1970s country-rock with a progressive glint, as much Steve Miller and Steely Dan as Grateful Dead.

Arena-rock hooks, colorful, imagistic lyrics, emotional lead guitar from Adam Terrell, and shimmery piano work from Nate Wilson (who co-writes the songs with Genauer) are all here, but the most distinctive characteristic of the set is a sunny disposition. Even the songs with serious or sad lyrics are still move-your-body music.

The band front-loads the CD with its best songs. The jumpy, mid-tempo “Grand Decision” evokes The Band (think “Ophelia”) and a bit of Boz Scaggs, while later in the CD, “Bootlegger’s Advice,” which slows that groove down, isn’t as strong a song. The bracing “Telling Sue” cheerfully adapts its soaring hook from the Dead’s “U.S. Blues,” while “Truck Farm” aims for a similar, simple, goofy grandeur but doesn’t quite hit the mark. Maybe Genauer just sounds too nice to represent the kind of guy who’s set a fire in anger after buying a lemon vehicle.

“Zero to the Skin” and “Whistle Clock” are fully realized works. They’re successful because they’re not trying to be anything but what they are, and because their music and lyrics evoke the gritty, poetic, somehow-we-survive American heartland spirit.

You may serve them roses.
You may serve their delight.
But when the working day closes,
I sing you sweetly goodnight.

The climax comes in the chorus of “Samuel Aging,” a nova of a song about a writer’s tragic life that could be any of ours.

Well he raked his eyes and read what he had laid down.
His tongue was dry, his eyes were moist and red.
Exhausted from the work and went and laid down,
and the writing read and the writing read.
Run walk or stagger to your old life’s hanging.

Next comes “40 Reasons,” a pretty but not entirely convincing attempt at Neil Young’s sort of minor-key pathos. The rather hollow “The Honest Hour” is notable mostly for inheriting the language of its guitar solo from Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer.” And on the evidence of the aimless “Walking on Water,” “Desperado”-style ballads aren’t the Assembly’s strong suit.

Even the less successful songs have well-considered lyrics and a sensitive soul. But what we have here is an excellent band delivering half of an excellent album.

Hear some full tracks at their Myspace page.

Brooklyn Repertory Ensemble, Pragmatic Optimism

You don’t hear too much ensemble jazz any more, and when you do it’s usually in an educational context (meaning, most of us who aren’t in school never experience it). For one thing, it’s awfully expensive to gather and rehearse a big jazz band. The musicians are hard to herd because they’re always off scrabbling for the next paying job, which is usually with a smaller combo, or backing up a pop singer, or teaching.

Notwithstanding these difficulties, the resourceful drummer and composer Wade Barnes has expanded his highly regarded 1990s group, the Brooklyn Four Plus One, into a powerhouse seventeen-piece ambassador for what he accurately calls “America’s classical music,” and done it in an unusual way: by incorporating the band as a 501c3 nonprofit organization.

Fear not, however – far from being a dry, academic exercise in preservation, the B.R.E.’s new CD (and, I would imagine, its concerts) is living, breathing jazz. Precisely energized ensemble playing, sophisticated Ellingtonian arrangements, quirky solos, un-everyday instruments (vibes; tuba and euphonium; a French horn and a mellophone), and buttery vocals from Tulivu-Donna Cumberbatch add up to a redolent hour-plus of satisfying music.

The band’s spare take on “Blowin’ in the Wind” opens the CD straightforwardly, deep brass pulsing. Delicate solos from pianist John Nam and guitarist Yoshiki Miura, along with Cumberbatch’s semi-operatic vocals, turn the folk classic into a meditative cloud. The other familiar tunes are a smooth partially sung “Stolen Moments” featuring clarinetist McDonald Payne, and “Body and Soul.”

Subtle polyrhythms underpin Barnes’s own “Passive Volition,” which features vibraphonist William Ware, III among others. The leader’s other compositions incline towards the meditative – they have titles like “The Power of Feeling” and “The Power of Thought” – and do not feature vocals, but there’s always something on the surface to tickle the ear and Barnes’s gossamer drumming driving everything along. “Little Big Sis,” in 5/4 time, builds into a pentatonic scale rave-up and may be my favorite track in spite of its melodic (though not rhythmic) simplicity.

Hear extended clips of this unusual set at CD Baby.