Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Irion, Robustelli, Americana Compilation, Wells

I get a lot of CDs to review. Many, many CDs.

I mean, really, really a lot of CDs. Piles and piles. Rafts of them. Oodles. Myriads. Hosts.

Did I mention that I get a lot of CDs to review? Well, I do – a lot more than I could possibly give a careful listen to, much less write about. Yet I like to give everything a chance. What to do?

Like many people who work for a living, I have certain tasks that require total concentration, and others whose tedium is ameliorated by background music. So what I often do is throw CDs into my computer while I'm doing the latter kind of work, and see if something jumps out at me in the first couple of songs. If the music can catch my attention at low volume while I'm focused on something else, I figure the disc's worth a careful listen at home later. Usually the test works well.

But it wouldn't have worked for Johnny Irion's new disc, Ex Tempore. This CD is a very subtle set of songs. Fortunately, I'd heard a little about the artist before, through his work with Sarah Lee Guthrie, so I advanced the CD to my serious listening pile even though it hadn't passed the background-music test. The couple of splash moments I'd heard – a Beatles reference here ("Madrid"), a modestly catchy chorus there ("Roman Candle," "Eyes Like a Levee") – hadn't done the trick.

The danger in my method is that I might miss something with a new and original sound that requires close attention in order to "get" what it's about. And what makes Irion's CD special is that it has a new and original sound. Sure, it has influences and recognizable elements: folk-pop, glam rock, blue-eyed soul, Sonny Bono, The Band, and most directly, Neil Young in his wispy-voiced acoustic mode. But taken as a whole, it sounds like nothing else I've heard – a rare and welcome thing.

Irion serves up his topsy-turvy slices of life with grainy, unexpected lyrics and warmly rootsy but slightly off-kilter arrangements. People find their way through life: "I get a good cry every morning/Cuttin' up other people's onions/It's a good way and a good excuse/To let it all out." They philosophize, celebrate, and bemoan: "Casting my net a little wider every day/Somehow the big one always slips away."

But there's much more to it than evocative lyrics. Unlike 99% of pop music, these songs do unexpected things, both sonically and structurally. Imagination dominates. Irion speaks the pop language without using pop formulas. And it all falls together.

Glad I didn't let this one slip away. Listen up at his Myspace page

Anthony Robustelli, Another Fatal Blow

Cross Steely Dan with Stevie Wonder, add some Rufus and a little Randy Newman, and you'll have Anthony Robustelli's new CD. Reveling in its 1970s antecedents in spite of its digital-clean, 21st century home-studio timbre, the music bops and shivers like the best classic jazz-funk, decorated with hints of modern beats and samples.

Robustelli often records his vocals at a relatively low level, increasing the emphasis on his beats, keyboards, and icy electric guitar accents. (He plays most of the instruments himself). The quirky mixing sometimes gives me pause. It's got its own internal logic, I'm sure, but I can't always keep up with it. However, that's a pretty esoteric quibble about a very enjoyable album of well-crafted songs and tasty playing.

Highlights include the catchy "Half a Chance," the swinging, expressionistic "Charismatic Superman," and the soulful ballad "How Do You Say Goodbye," which seems to channel Leon Russell. An easygoing Southern soul vibe makes "Another Rant" a winner, and a brilliant sax solo by Deji Coker helps flesh out the sixteen-minute epic "And When We Tell You."

Listen here, and if you're in the New York area catch him at Biscuit BBQ on October 5. Live, the Robustelli band seriously smokes.

Various Artists, Americana

A few months back I had the opportunity to review Putumayo World Music's Women of the World Acoustic compilation. Now comes their Americana disc, wrapped in the label's usual beautiful packaging, and compiled with care to present some of the most representative artists and songs in the Americana genre. "From Austin to Asheville," reads the back-cover copy, "contemporary singer-songwriters explore America's rural musical roots." True that.

The disc opens with the brisk "Down the Mountain" by the chirpy RobinElla, and proceeds through a batch of woody, non-threatening tunes from the likes of Mulehead, the Little Willies (the Norah Jones-Richard Julian project), and Robert Earl Keen, whose settle-in-and-take-a-nice-bath voice is always welcome. Newcomer Eliza Lynn introduces a jazzy element with the bland "Sing a New Song," and then Old Crow Medicine Show picks up the pace with their sparkly-eyed, high-lonesome, absurdly catchy "Wagon Wheel," from their self-titled debut – which, incidentally, is one of the very few Americana CDs your humble correspondent has actually shelled out money for in the past couple of years. (In case that means anything to you.)

Chip Taylor & Carrie Rodriguez's danceable "Sweet Tequila Blues" makes you feel like you're at a barn dance. Taylor, the legendary songwriter of "Wild Thing" and "Angel of the Morning," is enjoying a rejuvenated career as part of this duo.

An exception to the album's theme of original songs in old-fashioned styles is new grass legend Tim O'Brien's stubbornly, and refreshingly, traditional arrangement of "House of the Rising Son." Alison Brown's gently virtuosic instrumental "Deep Gap" leads into the gospel-like and utterly charming "Prayer For My Friends" by Terri Hendrix, which is that rarity, a song about praying that doesn't annoy me.

I don't get Josh Ritter's appeal, but he's popular and he's here. Ruthie Foster – whose CD Runaway Soul I also bought with my own money – closes the disc. Foster can teach us all a thing or two about injecting soul into an acoustic arrangement.

The abiding impression one gets from this CD is "pretty, but safe." Nothing wrong with that – the collection is very pleasant and does what it sets out to do. If you don't listen to this kind of music much, it could certainly turn you on to some fine artists.

Shea Breaux Wells, Piece of the Light

Shea Breaux Wells mixes up torchy jazz and contemporary piano pop, but she seems more inspired, both as a singer and a songwriter, in the former language. Her strength as a vocalist is in the fine points of melodic movement called for by jazz chords; her voice doesn't have the bright colors needed for pop, and the songs she writes in the latter style are tame and prone to prosaic, new-agey lyrics. The pulsing "The Keeper" is something of an exception.

I would have enjoyed a whole album of the jazzier songs like "Soothe Me," "Finest of Lies," her snaky version of "Always Something There to Remind Me," and her re-imagining of the Beatles' "Blackbird," in which her velvety voice cushions an exciting piano solo from Noam Lemish.

Listen at her website or at CD Baby.

Theater Review (NYC): Victor Woo: The Average Asian American at the Fringe Festival

Musicals scored by singer-songwriters are hot these days, at least in theory, but the success of Duncan Sheik’s Spring Awakening hasn’t guaranteed anything for similar efforts. Patty Griffin’s 10 Million Miles, for example, didn’t get great reviews and ran for only a month off-Broadway. As with Mamma Mia and the many pop-nostalgia musicals that followed it, one brilliantly successful case does not guarantee a payday for others of the same ilk.

A musical has to work as a piece of theater, of course; good music isn’t enough (that’s why they invented concerts). Audiences, and to a lesser extent critics, have to like the whole show, not just one aspect. Spring Awakening is a great show because it’s a good story staged wonderfully well and told with exciting music that fits. Sheik uses the vocabulary of pop music, but the show is a modern-style musical, with songs that exist entirely to serve the story. Hummability isn’t even a secondary goal.

It’s hard to make theater out of today’s pop, because most current songwriting is confessional rather than character-based. Songwriters like Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and, to a degree, Patty Griffin, write songs from the points of view of different characters with interesting narratives. But such songwriters are rare.

Kevin So is a singer-songwriter who, like the above mentioned artists, doesn’t just express feelings but also tells tales and sketches characters. Until now that had been captured most explicitly in his 2003 two-CD concept album, Leaving the Lights On, which tells the R&B-inflected story of a Chinese-American boy who doesn’t want to go to college and become an engineer or a doctor, but instead dreams of becoming a rock star. So’s unusual ability to frame vivid characters and settings in catchy, sophisticated pop tunes makes his songs ideal for the stage, and a fine musical has now been crafted from them.

(Full disclosure: I was previously familiar with many of the songs in the show, having, in the past, played in Kevin So’s band.)

Victor Woo: The Average Asian American is receiving an ambitious, joyful, and even somewhat star-studded maiden voyage by the Present Company as part of the New York International Fringe Festival. It successfully combines the narrative flow of a show like Spring Awakening (or an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical) with an original-music version of something like the pop-hummable Jersey Boys. The show is a little rough around the edges, but that’s to be expected of any full-scale musical done on a Fringe timetable. With a little more polish it could be a smash, and not just with the downtown hipsters who populate the Fringe audience.

To begin with, the production boasts some heavy-hitting performances. Francis Jue is a veteran of Broadway productions such as M. Butterfly and Thoroughly Modern Millie. He turns Stanley Woo, the father, into infinitely more than the long-suffering immigrant stereotype that his twelve-hour days, Chinese restaurant, and dream of sending his son to Harvard might suggest. Looking vulnerable with his slim figure and plain, clean white dress shirt, he conveys all the complex feelings of a father with old-world values trying to make a good life for his family in a new world of struggle. He threads aching colors through the intense “The Hand That Feeds,” the haunting “Stanley Woo,” and the rocking “Streets of Chinatown” among other numbers, and is just as powerful and touching in his spoken scenes.

Christine Toy Johnson, another Broadway veteran, has less to do in the role of the mother, but her lovely voice and graceful presence make touching moments of “Call it a Day” and “If It Were Up To Me.” Robert Pendilla lends a sweet tenor and a big-hearted suavity to the role of Henry, the hard, street-savvy youth who buckles under the ever-optimistic Victor’s onslaught of friendliness. Michelle Rios, Michelle Liu Coughlin, Nedra McClyde and others have effective scenes in smaller roles, and the sheer energy that pours from the stage during the numerous ensemble numbers is a pleasure to take in.

At the center of it all is Victor, played with a sly fusion of mugging and gravity by Raymond J. Lee (who has appeared on Broadway in Mamma Mia). Lee’s precise singing voice has only modest power, but his expressive face and elastic energy more than make up for it. In his hands Victor becomes both down-to-earth and larger than life, whether he’s playing twelve (at the start) or mid-twenties (by the end).


McKinley Belcher III, Nedra McClyde, and Raymond J. Lee in Victor Woo: The Average Asian American. Photo by John Mazlish.

In short, a strong cast, a good live band, and an unusually excellent book (by the director, Kevin Merritt) give blooming life to So’s crafty and inspired songs. The choreography, by JD Aubrey Smith and Akim Funk Buddha, tickles the eye, and sometimes dazzles, as in “New Sensation,” where a group of robotic record executives debate Victor’s star potential.

It doesn’t matter whether Victor achieves his dreams in the end. The journey is the key, as he eventually explains to his mother. One of the show’s strengths is the way it tells the father’s story and the son’s in parallel, with equal sympathy and sensitivity. This examination of two generations makes the show much deeper and richer than it would have been if was just about a kid dreaming of stardom. There’s a lot of autobiography in these songs and this show, but, far from being a confessional, it’s a wise, personal, informed exploration of family, of love’s power and its limits, and of growing up.

Kevin So can be a wordy songsmith. While that’s appropriate for Victor’s hip-hop mileu, it requires extremely precise timing from the performers and close listening by the audience. Some of the tempos seemed a little faster than necessary – there were places where the lyrics got lost in the rush, generally through no fault of the performers. The show has a lot of numbers, but they’re punchy ones, and the story moves rapidly; the play is not in danger of being too long. Slowing parts of it up a bit would help make it more universally accessible (especially considering the non-inner-city tourists on whom Broadway depends).

At the Village Theater, 158 Bleecker St., NYC. Ticket information here or call (212) 279-4488. The final two performances are Thursday, August 23 at 4 PM and Saturday, August 25 at 1:15 PM.

Theater Review (NYC): Long Distance

Long Distance is a new short-story adaptation from The Ateh Theater Group, the team responsible for the recent stage version of Kelly Link’s story “The Girl Detective.” But while that play was gaily zany, the new show – a tryptich of one-acts based on stories by Judy Budnitz – is more of a downer. Tales of decay and death usually are.

The first playlet, Visitors, is the most lighthearted, a quirky and funny tale of family dysfunction that accelerates towards the macabre. The uptight and dreadfully nervous Meredith (Elizabeth Neptune) awaits an impending visit from her parents, who keep calling from the road as they slip into deepening trouble. But the mother (Sara Montgomery) is such a cornpone stereotype that we don’t care much what happens to her, while the increasingly freaked-out Meredith is so mean to her boyfriend Parrish (Jake Thomas) that we find it hard to drum up sympathy for her either. Fortunately, Neptune’s precisely focussed performance and Dunlap’s deadpan direction keep the action tight as it careens towards a jolting finale.

Flush (you can read the original story here) sweetens its gloomy subject matter – breast cancer, and a family in which it runs – with a swirl of absurd humor, and makes its curious point about blurred identities. But despite a touching and perfectly calibrated performance by Diana Lynn Drew as Leah, a fearful mother who turns avoidance into an art form, and solid work from the rest of the cast, it’s ultimately just plain depressing.

Skin Care is sad too, yet it’s the best of the three one-acts. Here Dunlap seems to get the tone just right; perhaps this story simply lends itself most readily to the stage. It’s a fairy tale, really, starring Montgomery as Jessica, a girl who goes away to college but fails to take the advice of her fretful older sister (Neptune again, here taking paralyzing panic to a scary extreme). Naturally Jessica contracts leprosy, with surprising and revelatory results, and Montgomery’s silent scenes with her props of illness are the emotional perigee of the production.


In Budnitz’s world, many things aren’t entirely what they seem. When did Parrish suddenly start wearing glasses? Did Leah really see a fish in the toilet? But in this set of adaptations it’s the finale, Skin Care – the one in which the absurdity is essential rather than decorative – that gives us the clearest look into the hearts of the terrified, tyrannical, blood-and-guts-beautiful women who people Judy Budnitz’s unique imagination.

Book Review: The Grand Delusion: The Unauthorized True Story of Styx by Sterling Whitaker

Where do we get our fascination with seeing the mighty fall? Why do we love to trace on a map the collapse of an empire and to read every painful detail of a hero’s downfall (not to mention a villain’s comeuppance)? It’s not simply schadenfreude. There’s also identification.

People, relationships, and institutions are all subject to the corrosive effects of internal conflict, and internal conflict is interesting. For one thing, it reflects our personal interior fractioning back in our faces. It’s no accident that we turn our bodily ills into societal metaphors and advertising slogans: a company is “hemorrhaging money,” violent crime is “a cancer on society,” a car company wants to be “the heartbeat of America.”

So, while jealousy may explain some of the pleasure we take in others’ failure and misfortune, when we observe the forces that drive organized entities towards chaos, entropy and oblivion we nod in recognition because we ourselves contain – and can just barely contain – those same forces. Even religious people who think there is a supernatural purpose to their existence have an expression for it: “There but for the grace of God…”

Not only do we know in the back of our minds that poverty, paralysis or death could be lurking around any corner, we also seem to need constant reminding that we are not alone in this perilous boat. And it can be especially comforting to see that our heroes, as well as our peers, live on the edge of disaster. That goes some way towards explaining Americans’ obsession with celebrities: “The bigger they are, the harder they fall.” (Lindsey Lohan, anyone?)

Individual celebrities can be fascinating enough, but bands go them one better, boasting family dysfunction along with human foibles. Watching a band twist and spasm through failure, success, and post-success implosions and hangovers can be like watching a sprawling soap opera. Sterling Whitaker knows this, and in his new book he does a nice job of fitting together his own interviews and previously published sources to tell the story of a complicated band that got precious little respect but enjoyed enormous popularity.

Whitaker’s engrossing, occasionally repetitive book is quite different from Styx bassist Chuck Panozzo‘s memoir, which I reviewed recently here. The latter provided a personal, subjective, inside look at how two teenage brothers and an ambitious young accordion player started a group that soared from playing high school dances in Chicago to becoming one of the most popular bands in North America, with four triple-platinum albums in a row during its peak years. The new book, by contrast, takes a broad view of the band’s history.

Whitaker presents in their own words the recollections of Styx’s managers, label reps, crew, publicist, super-fans, and even a few members, tying the lengthy quotes together with a relatively small amount of narrative text. The format gives the book a raw, unfinished feel, but it’s an effective way of telling the story. Considering that the author had direct access to only one member (Tommy Shaw) of the band’s classic lineup, he does an admirable job presenting the overall picture and the feuding principals’ differing points of view.

Where he is weak is on the very early years of the band. For that, you’ll do better with Panozzo’s book. In fact, Whitaker has almost nothing to say about the Panozzo brothers, though they, together with Dennis DeYoung, started the whole thing. To be sure, John Panozzo, the troubled, volatile drummer, is no longer with us, and Chuck Panozzo, who detailed his years as a closeted homosexual and his battle with AIDS in his own book, hasn’t been the band’s regular bass player in some time. Still, some more background on the early days, and maybe a little less on the late, uncelebrated period, would have given the book more balance.

Styx fans, both hardcore and casual, will surely find the book fascinating, as will students of the music business. Whether it will be of interest to others is less certain. You wouldn’t mistake it for a novel, and it’s rather dense for a soap opera. But Styx’s career and music were always extremely personality-driven, which makes the band’s story unusually interesting. There is much drama in the way the extremely different musical sensibilities of the songwriters DeYoung, Shaw, and James “JY” Young collided and merged in an almost magical way to create a body of work that was so vastly appealing.

In fact, it’s almost startling, given today’s fractured pop music climate, to trace how progressive-rock bombast, syrupy piano ballads, and working-class heartland rock fused into such a popular sound. And I don’t think audiences have really changed that much since Styx’s heyday in the late 1970s – they still, fundamentally, like the same things in their music. But Styx’s roller coaster ride spun the band through a music business that has changed so drastically that today’s aspiring musicians would hardly recognize it. So there’s historical value in the book as well.

The Styx episode of VH1’s Behind the Music a few years ago was so popular that it gave a career boost to the latest incarnation of the band. That version, which continues to work, includes two members who were there for the huge successes – Shaw and Young – along with Lawrence Gowan, Todd Sucherman, and Ricky Phillips. If you go to a Styx show today you will not see a Panozzo brother or a Dennis DeYoung. But that’s the thing about bands – they acquire a life of their own. And concerning the life, the music (good and bad) and the stormy career of the band called Styx – once one of pop music’s biggest acts, and certainly one of its most interesting stories – Whitaker’s detailed and deeply researched book delivers the goods.

That’s Mr. Editor to You

I’m now officially the Theater Editor of Blogcritics, the fine online magazine where I have been posting my music and theater reviews and sundry spewings since (holy garbanzo beans, can it be???) 2004.

Drunk with power, I can now impose my tyrannical editorial will upon naked, quivering sentences written by other human beings in the fullness of their hearts. The gargantuan responsibility is hitting me like three-quarters of a ton of ancient Roman bricks. Perhaps a cup of coffee is called for.

Theater Review: bombs in your mouth at the Fringe Festival, NYC

The premise is right out of Playwrighting 101: kin gather after a death in the family, the past is dredged up, sparks fly. In the one-act variant, it’s two siblings who clash over past wrongs, and then, if they’re lucky, one or both shucks off a rotted skin and emerges into a fresh phase of life.

Something told me Corey Patrick’s take on this old trope would rise above cliché, and I was right. bombs in your mouth (sic) is a jewel of a play, laugh-out-loud funny and slyly touching.

Transparently directed by Joseph Ward, and beautifully acted by the author and the wonderful Cass Buggé, the play finds half-siblings Danny and Lilly reunited, after six years, in their Minnesota hometown upon their father’s death. Danny, who has taken care of the old man through a slow and painful mental decline, naturally resents Lilly for having decamped to New York for a glamorous advertising career.

The demon is in the details, which Patrick and Buggé slowly reveal during a series of scenes powered by alcohol, anger, infantile banter replayed from childhood, and a revelatory roll of toilet paper. The concept of the story may be tried and true, but the execution is thoroughly up-to-date. Most important, the actors inhabit their characters so thoroughly, and execute Patrick’s prickly, raunchy dialogue so seemingly instinctually, that there’s hardly a moment in which the audience feels detached from the action.

bombs in your mouth
Cass Buggé and Corey Patrick in bombs in your mouth. Photo by John Scott.

Danny, the pugilistic, working-class Bob Newhart, and Cass, the nattily dressed and icily sexy Upper West Side stinging nettle, couldn’t be more different on the surface – they don’t even look related – but completely convince as a typical modern family distilled to the nth degree of humor. They have just one parent in common, and have taken very different paths, but retain their familial resentments and a hint of love in spite of themselves. Cass’s unexpected revelations about her mental state and her career and Danny’s tales of their father’s decline work as plot devices the way shocks and car chases do in a good action movie.

What we learn about the characters may be dimly rooted in the past, but the meaning behind the action is refreshingly present. The now, not the then, is what draws us in. That’s what makes Patrick’s take on this old story new. Brought to life in this excellent production, it’s the best two-character play I’ve seen since Trevor Ferguson’s Zarathustra Said Some Things, No?, and a distinct highlight of this year’s Fringe Festival.

At the Cherry Lane Studio Theatre in New York City. Performances through August 24. Tickets online at the Fringe website, or call 212-279-4488 or 888-FringeNYC (outside NY).

Music Review: Indie Round-Up – The Pretty Things, Larry Bagby, Jenn Franklin

The Pretty Things, Balboa Island

In my last column I time-shifted back 35 years to talk about a new CD of old music by John Phillips of The Mamas and the Papas. This week I’ve got a CD of brand new music from a band that goes back even further.

At the opposite end of the pop music spectrum from Papa John’s shimmery harmonies lie The Pretty Things. 43 years after its first recording, the band that made the Rolling Stones look like polite gentlemen is going strong (if sporadically), and their new album – the first in eight years – sounds far more vital than anything their fellow survivors, the Stones and the Who – bless ’em both – could ever record this late in their careers.

Probably no artist as astronomically successful as those bands could remain this real. The Stones and the Who stretched and polished their musical horizons over the decades. The Pretty Things were never about polish. They were about the beast that scratches your face and gives you an infection, then stomps on your foot for good measure. Yet there’s a simple, aching beauty to some of the new songs.

Lead singer Phil May, guitarist Dick Taylor (the Stones’ original bass player), and their bandmates enjoyed a period of great popularity in the mid-60s in Britain, though their success didn’t cross over to the US. The songs they crafted then were good, but they’re better writers now. Some of the credit for that goes to Frank Holland, a relatively late addition to the band. Meanwhile May’s voice, always effective, has deepened and strengthened with age.

Perhaps the Pretty Things never had the pop songwriting genius of Pete Townshend or Jagger-Richard. They didn’t channel their raw energy into the kind of tunes that could transcend their time, penetrate and become part of the collective soul. Instead the Things built attitude into art, years before the punk revolution made fuck-you rebelliousness mainstream. They were a little too nasty even for those relatively enlightened cultural gatekeepers who welcomed the Stones as a raunchy alternative to the clean-cut Beatles. Laboring in obscurity, they’ve stayed true to their vision.

The band has retained a cult following over the years. The new CD should please those fans and also create some new ones, provided it gets a chance to be heard. Its British Invasion-style, blues-influenced pop songs aren’t prettied up for a pop audience. Parts of the CD are breathtakingly raw, like “All Light Up” and the rave-up towards the end of the epic “(Blues for) Robert Johnson.” The elemental rock anthem “Buried Alive” sounds like a lost collaboration between Cream and T. Rex, the cover of Bob Dylan’s “Ballad of Hollis Brown” suits the band fine, and “Freedom Song” wallows in its Fats-Domino-in-Hell piano triplets like a pig in murky water. Set off against those are a handful of lighter pop nuggets like “Mimi” and “Pretty Beat.”

The Pretty Things weren’t for everybody back in 1964, and they’re not for everybody now. But they’re still exactly who they are. It’s quite remarkable.

Listen to extended clips here and download “All Light Up” (an amazing beast of a song) here.

Larry Bagby, On the Radio (EP)

Larry Bagby’s plaintive voice and melodic, heartland-country songs have a polished sound but a rootsy, almost archaic appeal. The hero of the intense title track is a musician playing small bars, dreaming of making it big and getting played on the radio (a primitive music distribution system popular in the 20th century). The acoustically funky “Done Giving Love” rocks unselfconsciously, like music used to do before everything became ironic, and “Player with a Heart” does right by its old-timey rockabilly feel.

“Counting My Lucky Stars” is an old-fashioned love song with imagistic lyrics and a lovely melody. The other two ballads are forgettably prosaic and could have been culled. But this an EP worth checking out if you’re a fan of rootsy, Dixie-fried, acoustic-based country rock. If nothing else, it proves that Larry Bagby is a lot more than the bully from Buffy.

Listen to tracks from On the Radio here.

Jenn Franklin, Errors & Omissions (EP)

Jenn Franklin’s assured debut is getting a fresh release this Fall. There’s a savage honesty in her piano-driven songs and poetic lyrics (“Broken compass, we just never knew/When north became south became lost”) that make them stand out despite the straightforward pop-rock forms in which she and producer Peter Overton work. The disc feels more like a a brief, pointed album than an EP. Its six songs stretch for 26 minutes, after all – longer than a typical LP when the Pretty Things were starting out!

Although Franklin is a piano player and a good one, her sound is more Evanescence than Vanessa Carlton, more Alannah Myles (especially in “Mercy”) than Tori Amos – though “Impasse 900” does bring to mind the latter’s hit “Cornflake Girl.” Her voice is captured with a slightly distancing effect that reminds me of the way female vocals were recorded in the problematic 80s, but that’s a minor quibble.

The opening song, “What Took You So Long,” rocks the hardest but, overloaded with crunching guitar tracks, it feels the least honest. “Impasse 900,” on the other hand, successfully snaked into my veins. My favorite is the intensely dramatic ballad “Fade,” while “No Mercy” and the lovely “Cozumel” are fully juiced with blood and guts.

Listen or purchase at her website. Or listen to some full tracks at her Myspace page.