Music Review: Indie Round-Up for Oct. 19 2006 – Special Happy Music Edition

This week we cover only happy music. I said: Only happy music. Only. Happy. Music. Shut up.

Nicola, Don’t Take It Personally

Latin-tinged soulfulness and a unique mix of hard pop and polyrhythmic complexity have always characterized Nicola, but she and her band (also called Nicola) inch towards the progressive edge of alt-rock with this, her third CD. As on her earlier releases, Nicola’s catlike alto and spidery, sensuous acoustic guitar meld with the funkiness of her tight-as-leather-pants band to create an original but accessible pop sound. This disc is not as replete with hooks, however, as her past work. The songs, while strong and frequently striking, have more of the rock landscape about them and less of the portrait.

The title track is quite catchy, however, as is the power ballad “Crazy.” “Lighthouse” is a nifty mix of heavy rock and melodic soundscape, and “In Your Own Backyard” is a surprisingly convincing rap-metal experiment featuring Tah Phrum Duh Bush.

From “(5,6,7,8) Hot Date,” a hilarious blast of relationship anger punk, to its opposite extreme, the soul ballad “Combustible,” Nicola’s work continues to express one of pop music’s more creative musical visions. And their live shows are a party and a half. The New York release party for the CD will be at the Bowery Poetry Club on Nov. 17.

Extended clips here.

Brian Simpson, Postcard From L.A.

When an artist is so closely imitative of one inspiration as Brian Simpson is of Tom Petty, the listener can have two possible responses: take it entirely on its own terms, or put it in context. In context, there’s a certain lack of originality. Simpson sings like Tom Petty (crossed with Huey Lewis), he writes like Tom Petty, and most strikingly he arranges like Tom Petty. But on his own terms, he’s pretty darn good, making well-crafted, sunny California pop-rock with engaging vocals and a happy vibe.

The main disadvantage of aping someone’s sound is that your songwriting tends to suffer by comparison. But while Simpson doesn’t match his idol in that regard, few do, and these songs have much going for them on their own. This is well-made, feel-good music, and we always need more of that.

Extended clips can be heard here.

The Brightwings, Stay

Equally sunny sounds come from the Brightwings. The California lilt of their shimmery folk-rock is a tribute to their devotion to their artistic vision and to modern heating (or maybe global warming) – the band is from Boston. “All I Need” is highly catchy, and “Many Miles” and “Mallory” are fine pop baubles as well, while the wispy “I Want You To Stay” harks back to 1960s pop. The only weakness is that some of the lead vocals lack heft, though the lustrous harmonies in the choruses make up for that somewhat. The CD closes with a lovely version of “Please Come To Boston,” an inspired choice.

Melissa Ivey, Lovers and Stars

The title track of powerhouse Melissa Ivey’s new EP is getting a lot of airplay in her home state of Colorado. It’s a fine pop tune that suggests a younger Sheryl Crow combined with a smarter Avril Lavigne. But I like the first of the two collaborations with The Knack‘s Berton Averre even more: though it adheres less closely to pop conventions, “Eye on the Door” fits Ivey’s sultry voice like a wet, torn t-shirt. Her voice, and the CD’s smoky production, polishes the dark cores at the songs’ hearts, digging deeper into the soul than one expects from such a young singer.

The dramatic climax of the other Averre co-write, “Everywhere and Nowhere,” comes as an almost Bowie-esque crescendo, while the fun, punked-out “Far Away” owes more to the riot grrl bands. On the evidence of this limited sample, Ivey has a touch that makes whatever she tries work for her, including the sophisticated folk-pop closer, “No Ties To Break,” whose gorgeous little melody grabs on and won’t let go. Ivey is a big talent we should be hearing a lot more from soon.

Extended clips here.

The Beautiful Girls, Water

Australia’s Beautiful Girls follow up last year’s international success with a new compilation of songs from their earlier releases. Those CDs didn’t get wide notice outside their native country, so the songs will be new to North American and European audiences. The Caribbean influence is subtler on this disc than on 2005’s We’re Already Gone, and there’s more stress on the funky acoustic skeleton that holds up their liquidy melodies. The sound, reminiscent of the Chili Peppers’ soft underbelly, depends on the band’s ability to serve their songs (all written by singer-guitarist Mat McHugh) by holding back rather than pressing forward. Indeed, it’s music that makes you lean back – at least mentally – as you tap your feet and bob your head.

The band depicts a variety of moods using a small palette. The dreamy reflectivity of “Periscopes” slides into the sly “Morning Sun,” whose positive lyrics jostle effectively with tense minor chords. The raw “Water” flows into a barely-there instrumental called “First Sign of Trouble.” The centerpiece of the CD is the joyous “Music”: “‘Cause I got music and it makes me feel all right… and I got it every day.” That’s true wisdom, y’all.

In a few of the softer, more contemplative tracks like “Freedom” and “I Need To Give This Broken Heart Away” the tension drops out and, with it, too much of the musical energy. But the reggae-ish “Weight of the World” points ahead to the band’s lively, mature style. In sum, this compilation has its weaknesses, but fans of We’re Already Gone and of McHugh’s shades-of-grey writing and carefully thrown-away vocals will probably like it – at least to tide them over till a release of really new material.

Vicki Genfan, Up Close and Personal

The Jaco Pastorius of the acoustic guitar? Ellen McIlwaine squared? The Pat Metheny of New Jersey? Vicki Genfan may be a little bit of all those things, but primarily she is herself: a guitar wizard with jaw-dropping technique and gushing creativity. Her new double CD consists of an instrumental disc and a singer-songwriter disc. The former is a revelation. In it Genfan provides a guitar clinic that’s not in the least clinical. With her acoustic six-string front and center, and tasteful backing here and there from other top musicians, she takes us through an eleven-song odyssey through the workings of a scarily brilliant musical mind.

By comparison, the best that can be said about the singer-songwriter CD is that it’s a solid folk-jazz album that presses Genfan’s awesome guitar technique into the service of material that isn’t going to blow too many people away. That’s not to say it’s not a pleasure to listen to, if you’re in a contemplative mood. Genfan’s vocals are calming and assured. “Don’t Give Up” and “Love Thing” with their smooth 70s-style soul-charged choruses owe more to Stevie Wonder and George Winston than Joni Mitchell, and the pretty jazz ballad “When You Are Winter” gets a nice lift from Gil Goldstein’s Debussy-inspired piano runs. The jazz strain continues with an ethereal cover of Marvin Gaye’s classic “What’s Going On,” dreamily decorated with an udu drum and a Wurlitzer solo by Goldstein.

On the other hand, neither Genfan’s spot-on but laid-back delivery nor the stalwart contributions of her excellent backing musicians can bring the weak Chris Jones song “Ain’t Got Love” to life; “Living in the Country” is a potentially nice song that suffers from a creative hesitancy you never hear in her instrumental work; and the cover of The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” is too new-agey for my taste, although its melody – one of the most beautiful ever written, n’est-ce pas? – comes through without damage.

I confess that even the best smooth-jazz stylings have never floated my boat much, so your knottage may vary. About recommending the instrumental CD, I have no reservations whatsoever. You can listen to extended clips of both discs at the release’s CD Baby page and decide for yourself. Then, whatever you think of what I think, I’ll wager you’ll agree that the amazing Vicki Genfan is a guitar-playing force of nature.

OUT AND ABOUT IN NYC: Kirsten DeHaan and Jodi Jett heated up the basement performance space at Club Midway on Tuesday night. Jett’s set was spoiled by an unpracticed and out-of-tune backing band, but on her new CD Revelations an easy wryness harks back to Lou Reed and Patti Smith while low-tech, moody arrangements read like early Jefferson Airplane channeled through Liz Phair and the Cowboy Junkies. (How’s that for cramming multiple comparisons into one sentence? Just wait, I’ll be reviewing the CD in a future column, one not devoted to happy music.) DeHaan, by contrast, is a nineties-style punk-pop dynamo. Her new 3-song EP is drawing comparisons to Belly and U2, which is fair enough, but her live set is rawer and more punked out. This dualism may simply be in the nature of the pretty, driven, biker-haired Indianan-turned-New Yorker, or it may be smartly planned – or both. In any case it makes her recorded music potentially radio-friendly in more than one circuit – grown up Gen-Xers, college rock, maybe even the Avril LaTween set. A combination of talent, personal intensity and looks might soon turn Kirsten DeHaan into a major indie player… Last night the music stage at Mo Pitkins belonged to neo-folk singer-songwriter Meg Braun, whose stage presence is becoming rapidly more assured as she gets closer to releasing her debut CD. Aviv Roth provided inspired acoustic fills and solos. Braun incidentally proved the value of musical collectives by filling the room with her Maggie’s Music Salon compatriots and their friends. If a bunch of musicians provide mutual support by going to one another’s gigs, they can fill a small room and help earn that night’s performer additional bookings. It’s not a new idea, but it seldom succeeds in practice, musicians being a self-interested bunch. Kudos to Maggies.