CD Reviews: Indie Round-Up for June 15 2006 – Chapin, Splitsense, Graffin, Apollo 13

Jen Chapin, Ready

Some artists, upon becoming parents, grow soft and precious in their work, but Jen Chapin remains a vital songwriter with a jazzy bite. Her new CD may be her best yet.

True, it has many quiet times and gentle sounds, and even a lullaby (“Skin”). And she addresses the “little man” in so many words more than once. But her slithery delivery, pop-inspired melodies and cutting lyrics turn even the homiest sentiment into art.

Nor has Chapin left behind her social and political consciousness. Pretty tunes and easy, jazz-soul arrangements (played by a very tasty small band that includes her husband, bassist and co-writer Stephan Crump) carry acidic observations about politics, ambition and lust. With a muted sonic palette the group paints a broad variety of pictures.

The mesmerizing “Goodbye” has an almost Brelian sadness, while the funky Rickie Lee Jones-like “Election Day” reflects Chapin’s longtime work with World Hunger Year (co-founded by her father, Harry Chapin): “We fuse all our illusions to these long lolling hours / To dreams of new sneakers and memories of funeral flowers / To each distracting handout and styrofoam meal / Leave chanting to the children a fury we conceal.”

“NYC,” reworked from the bass-and-voice version on 2002’s Open Wide, features Crump’s upright bass at its funkiest, while in the title track, a 1970s-style funk-soul groove blossoms into a spacious jam about new love.

There’s a lot to discover on this CD. Since it’s mostly on the quiet side, a couple of listens may be needed for full appreciation. But it repays the effort, plus interest.

Splitsense, Purify

This isn’t my mug of grog, but if you like supercharged headbanging alternative gloom metal, it might be yours. Splitsense is all about glowering moods and crunching guitars, not sensitive songwriting, and with lyrics like “These walls won’t last forever / Stale clouds of dust infect me” it’s just as well. That’s from the hookiest song, “As Far As I Can See.” Lead vocalist Jason’s hoarse yell is almost satanically strong, though it can soften into sensitivity, as in the ballad “Nigh,” for me the CD’s other highlight, whose melody uncharacteristically verges on the sweet. Mostly this music is a blast of adolescent anger at the world. “You’ll never break free / Of my disease / Scream / You can’t repent for all your / Sins.” “Don’t fall / Fall to your knees / Cause I can’t save you.” They’re right: Splitsense isn’t going to save the world, or anyone’s soul, or rock and roll for that matter. But they make a hell of a noise trying.

Extended samples here.

Greg Graffin, Cold As The Clay

Some fans of Bad Religion might be surprised that front man Greg Graffin is releasing an album consisting entirely of old-time American folk music and original songs inspired by it.

Some might not, though. The influential punk band’s erudite lyrics and masterful song structures contain enough clues that a variety of classic strains have informed its music. Now Graffin, one of Bad Religion’s principal songwriters (the new CD’s producer Brett Gurewitz is the other), has “set out to create a record that would honor the legacy of American music,” and he has succeeded.

Though his voice isn’t the most artful of instruments, Graffin’s love for the music shines through. He is backed on some songs by old-time musicians and on others by a rock band, but all are refreshingly under-rehearsed and heart-on-sleeve. The original songs bear Neil Young, Gram Parsons, and The Band influences, as Graffin himself points out in his liner notes – Stephen Carroll of the Weakerthans contributes a beautifully Youngian sound to “Don’t Be Afraid To Run” and “Rebel’s Goodbye” – but they also stand on their own. Among the traditionals, “The Highway” and “Talk About Suffering” (with Jolie Holland on harmony vocals) are especially touching.

Apollo 13, Lovebomb

Fusing pop, rock and electronica allows new bands to get away with old-fashioned (e.g. meaningful) songwriting without sounding dated or uncool. All sorts of comparisons come to mind listening to Apollo 13‘s new CD: Elvis Costello with a dance beat, Power Station, Cat Stevens, Deep Purple, even The Who (“Oh I can see for miles, but I still can’t find the end,” they croon in “No Sign of Land”). The band’s success on college-centric and at getting video and game placements bears witness to its hipness.

The hard-rock screamer “The Bomb” leads into the smooth techno of “Interference,” followed by the melodic “Up Up & Away” which spreads 80s-style harmonies over a thumping dance beat. “Rollin’ On” takes on hard southern-rock, with Shannon Savoie’s amped-up tenor shredding the high notes. The slinky “Another Lovely Day” suggests Robert Palmer recorded underwater, “Grandiose Palaces” sounds like Queen meeting the Turtles, and there’s a bit of soul in “Landslide to Oblivion.” Yet there’s consistent melodic and lyric depth beefing up the clever creativity of the production.

Its songs interspersed with theatrical instrumental interludes, Lovebomb isn’t quite categorizable, yet it’s both modern and accessible. That’s a tough thing to pull off. These lines from “Rollin’ On” sum up Apollo 13’s union of the tried-and-true with the up-to-the-minute: “I’m a-rollin’ down this old highway / Gonna find me a brand new life / Well I’m a-rollin’ rollin’ on / Don’t bother checking your GPS system girl / ‘Cause I’m gone yeah.”

Available, with extended clips, here.