Indie Round-Up for Feb 9 2006: Indiegrrl-apalooza

It’s been a busy couple of weeks here at the Indie Corral. Thanks in part to a fresh announcement on the Indiegrrl list, my CD pile is thick with submissions from female artists, hence the female face of this week’s Round-Up.

Susan Kane, So Long

This lovely set of hummable country-folk, beautifully produced by Billy Masters (Suzanne Vega’s guitarist), has been getting some airplay on prestigious folk programs, and deservedly so. Kane has a sweetly unassuming but clear and sure voice, a good command of American idioms from country-western to blues to coffeehouse folk, a knack for homespun melodies, and an ace collaborator in Masters, whose guitar work and production nests the songs perfectly.

Kane sings folk with a country-singer’s voice, merging the pure beauty of an Erica Smith with the worldliness of a Joni Mitchell. As with Linda Nuñez (see below), if you like this style of music, you will probably enjoy this strong album through and through.

I have one quibble. Although lyrics, as a consequence of their dependence on a musical setting, generally sound better sung than they read upon the page, Kane’s, curiously, go the opposite way. The simple, rather formal beauty of the song structures and melodies seem to contrast with the natural, tumbling quality of the storytelling, resulting – to this ear, anyway – in moments of diminished artfulness.

That aside, this is a fine disc worthy of a place on your folk shelf. Kane and Masters are also a pleasure to hear live, as I learned at a recent show at NYC’s Rockwood Music Hall.

Nuñez, Cry Mercy

Linda Nuñez and her band make unabashed power-rock. Inspired as much by 70’s icons Pat Benatar and Heart as by 90’s alternative bands like Live and Soundgarden, Nuñez sings in an unstoppable belt that’s very refreshing in this age of little-girl voices. And it’s not just her singing style and ballsy harmonies that evoke 70’s arena rock, it’s also her dramatic, sometimes deliciously over-the-top songwriting. A touch of Latin flavor (as in “Havana”), a soft underbelly (“Either Way”) and a proud but not heavy-handed gay identification give this artist plenty of crossover juice, too.

The best songs are up front: “Cry Mercy” is a monster jam, and it’s hard to get the chorus of “Love In Pieces” out of your head once you’ve heard it. “Yea” is a headbanger’s delight that Beavis and Butthead would surely have labeled cool, and “That’s Where I Went Wrong” is a solid power-pop anthem. The songs on the second half of the CD have less hit potential, but the power never lets up, and if you like one Nuñez song, you’ll probably like the whole album. It has depth, and it rocks: two for two in my book.

Patricia Ossowski, What Would You Believe?

This is keyboard-based precision-pop with sophisticated production, lush soundscapes, and powerful lyrics: “while you here always looking for a miracle while i just slowly drown/and you here always saying i’m beautiful but i just can’t be found.” Some of the songs, like “Luminous” and “Please Don’t Go,” have memorable hooks; some rock (“Lucky Me,” “Broken Me”); and many have haunting harmonies and evoke truly chilling moods. The songs are about relationships mostly, but Ossowski has her own poetic and pithy way of looking at things, as in “Broken Me”: “i try to find a reason try to live through all argument/weigh the damage in both hands and i start to miss you/i turn around through your eyes see the view from here/what a wreck i appear to be and i start to miss you.”

But Ossowski has a hard time matching her vocals to her passionate lyrics and dramatic arrangements. Soft, precise singing has its place; it can have the effect of turning a single word or phrase, or a very compressed little melody, into a valid hook, as it does here in “Lucky Me” and “Please Don’t Go.” But Ossowski lacks the vocal range and power that allows a Grace Slick or a Tori Amos to make the most of their quietly intense moments. Perhaps that’s part of why “Lucky Me” stands out on this CD – its tight vocal harmonies and machine-like beat reinforce each other like strands of a rope.

Cantrell Maryott, Moving, Not Leaving

Cantrell Maryott also sings in a controlled style, but with more variation. The opening track, “Do You Remember,” shows that she can sing and write a bluesy torch song with the best of them, whild its solo section proves Mitzi Cowell a masterful guitarist and Philippe Pfeiffer (Maryott’s primary co-writer) a pianist of exquisite skill and taste. (It’s nice to get a CD that sounds this good from a part of the Universe I’m totally unfamiliar with – Ashland, OR – filled with wonderful performances by musicians whose names are totally new to me.)

Maryott is originally from Arizona, and there’s something of the desert in her spacious songwriting. “Do You Remember” is the only torchy track; it leads into “Carry On,” a lovely folk-gospel tune with angelic harmonies, and “Amelie,” a wee folk ballad which, except for Maryott’s use of vibrato on the vocals, wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack. However, the song bears some of the New Age coloring that characterizes most of the rest of the CD, which is thereby less varied and somewhat less interesting.

“Three Miles Into New Mexico” is an exception: a minor-key, mid-tempo country-western tune with a solid chorus, it really gets the toes tapping. But “Long Way Home,” despite fine country-style acoustic guitar playing, has a vocal that’s too gently sing-songy for my taste. I do grow to like the song more as it extends and becomes hypnotic a la Brian Eno ambient rock, but can’t say the same for “Forever” and “Home” which are just plain too New-Agey for my taste.

The CD closes with the chant-like “On This Morning,” a solstice ritual with Pink Floyd electric guitar and what Maryott calls “chanteling”: “harmonizing vocally within acoustically charged spaces to ‘channel the chant.'” I call it pretty, like a ghost in the finery of another age.

In all, despite losing me in places, this CD is the work of accomplished musicians and has much to recommend it.

Available at CD Baby here.

NEWS AND FOLLOW-UPS: Lee Rocker’s new CD has started out as the #1 Most Added on the Americana Music Chart, beating out Shawn Mullins and Roseanne Cash… For you New Yorkers and Brooklynites, my Soul of the Blues series continues tonight at Night and Day with a stellar lineup of local and regional favorites… And finally, speaking of Brooklyn: thanks to the ravages of time and an errant broom, Planty is dead. Poor Planty – he was indeed a strange plant in a strange land.