CD Reviews: Indie Round-Up for June 29 2006 – Adamson, Vecchione, Next Wave Compilation

Barry Adamson, Stranger on the Sofa

What is this? How should I know? Why do I like it? I don’t know. It’s a mishmash of electronica, pop, experimental music and noise-rock, with a sensibility so tentacled and topsy-turvy that it feels unnecessary to worry about what to make of it.

Barry Adamson has been part of two very different bands: Magazine, and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. There’s some of the latter on this record, not much of the former. “The Long Way Back Again” is a good pop song. “Officer Bentley’s Fairly Serious Dilemma” has one section that is also a good pop song but then it becomes a radio-communication thing and then a swollen funk jam. Later on the record there’s some stuff that makes me think of Eno and Weill. There’s also some stuff in French. The Bowie-esque “Theresa Green” is sweet sweet sweet. And the coolest thing of all? Hardly any of it is set to dance beats. (If I never hear another dance beat in my life…)

Every section has not just its own sound but its own groove. Noir moods, Euros, easy sounds, clanky sounds. Is that why I like it? What is it, actually? Who is this guy? And what’s this about working with Barry White a few years ago? That doesn’t make any sense. I like things that don’t make sense. This is a CD that I like. Do you like it? I like it.

Laura Vecchione, Deeper Waters

Laura Vecchione’s dark, throaty voice and biting harmonies are reminiscent of Stevie Nicks, while the thoughtful tone of many of her original songs suggests Rosanne Cash. But she also has a playful side, something that’s lacking in certain Nashville stars (hence the enormous popularity of the gimmicky but fun Big and Rich). That, combined with the high quality of her songs (eight of these ten are originals), makes this soul-splashed country-rock CD a winner.

The opening track, “Jane,” is a towering anthem of self-assertion in the best tradition of stand-tall country singles. “Fool’s Gold” is a minor-key haunter in the vein of Patty Loveless, with Vecchione wringing every possible drop of emotion out of the dusky lyrics. It’s also a good example of genre-crossing, reminding me as much of soul-rockers like Nicola as of traditional country singers like Loveless.

The lovely, unusually well-written ballads lean towards the pop end of the country spectrum, with the exception of “Breaking Heart in NYC,” a slow, sweet shuffle whose country-and-western swagger is lit up by an old-timey clarinet solo.

On the lighter, uptempo side, Vecchione’s cover of the Beatles’ “Lady Madonna” bops nicely, and her rendition of Dr. John’s “Qualified” is inspired (actually, “kick-ass” is the technical term that comes to mind).

The CD is good enough that one is led to think carefully about whether Vecchione, a passionate and technically expert singer, has quite enough heft to her voice to rise to the top of country music. Her voice tugs at the heart, breaking, calling, and twanging, but is it rich enough? Is she fundamentally a country singer, or a roots-rock/pop singer like Melissa Etheridge or Sheryl Crow? At the top level of the recording industry, where standards and specifics are pretty unforgiving, these things tend to matter. Meanwhile, such questions aside, Vecchione is forging her own path to excellence.

Various Artists, Next Wave

Norine Braun solidifies her reputation as a tastemaker of distinction with her new Braun and Brains compilation, Next Wave. These twenty songs represent the cream of the crop from an enormous variety of styles. Braun’s own “Crystallize” is a scintillating, flute-laced pop bauble, so infectious even her mispronunciation of “mischievous” comes off as ingratiating. Other highlights of the CD’s glossy first half include Public Symphony’s subtle chamber pop “Rise & Shine,” Morgan’s creepy “Nice Day (For a Murder),” and Katrina Parker’s ballad “Killing Me,” which snakes jazzy singer-songwriter passion through a dramatic piano-pop arrangement. Greg Summerlin’s rather banal lyrics in “I Would Fight” are lifted by an aggressively sunny and charming arrangement of jangly guitars, and the track from David Z will please Madonna fans, as will Flow’s jerky blue-eyed hip-hop R&B.

The compilation’s first rock track is ecb‘s fine “Francis and Matilda,” which sounds like a collaboration between the Rolling Stones and ELO. Bulgaria’s Liliput Project checks in with a timeless-sounding trance-electronica piece, and then the CD’s biggest-name contributor, Marwood, shows why Benji Rogers’s voice and songwriting have made the band such a hit in the past year with the crystalline, acoustic guitar driven pop-rock of “Name To Me No More.”

“Prince Meets Paul Weller” is not a bad description of NYC native Raymond Fiore, whose John Popper-esque vocals elevate his compact soul-rocker “Spin the Wheel” into one of the compilation’s top tracks. “A Waste In Vain” by Sweden’s Celebrate the Sun has a catchy chorus, if garbled English, and then there’s a change in direction towards the rootsy with Tracy Stark’s torchy jazz ballad “Morning Light” and Minimal’s quirky, tuba and mandolin-driven “Crescent City” which sounds like it could almost have been a 1970s western TV show theme song. Indiegrrl founder Holly Figueroa’s unique, deceptively sharp-edged chamber-folk style is well represented by “How It Is.” Australia’s Hopkinson has done better than the vaguely pretty but ulimately limp “No. 5,” but Anthill has an engaging Canadian take on 1990s British pop, and guitarist Dave Hart’s impressive and moody “Mexican Sonata” really is in something approaching sonata form. Finally, Australian Megan Laurie checks in with a solid, straight-ahead country tune, “Light at the End of the Bottle.”

Few if any listeners will like every track on here, but you could do much worse than using Norine Braun as your funnel to top-notch pop of many styles.