Music Review: Indie Round-Up for Feb. 1 2007 – Kirchen, Jantz, Halter

A friend who regularly reads this column remarked on how rarely I publish negative reviews. It’s true, I tend to feature stuff I like, and that’s because I do this for the love of music (and writing). It’s a source of satisfaction to me to be able to give some exposure to good new indie releases that can use all the help they can get spreading the word.

No one’s paying me to write about any specific releases. I request only releases that look like they’ll be up my alley, or at least interesting. And when it comes to unsolicited stuff, I focus on what I consider to be the best of the pile. I have boxes full of CDs that didn’t inspire or interest me enough to write about.

When I do publish a negative review it’s usually because a recording interested me in some way even though I didn’t like it. Sometimes I’m using it as an excuse to rant about my more general opinions and prejudices. Other times I’m mad at a CD that disappointed me and I want to yell at it in public.

Also – and particularly when it comes to real do-it-yourself indies – my philosophy is to give weight to the positive aspects of a recording even when there are significant negatives. I feel justified in doing this since readers can generously sample virtually all releases online before they lay out any cash. Who buys music without sampling it first these days anyway, regardless of whether they’ve read a review?

And now for some music.

Bill Kirchen, Hammer of the Honky-Tonk Gods

The guitarist Bill Kirchen, the “King of Dieselbilly,” first made his name with Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen back in the late 60s and early 70s, and has since played with everyone from Gene Vincent to Ralph Stanley to Elvis Costello to Emmylou Harris. He is both a musicians’ musician and an accomplished, warm-hearted singer and songwriter.

Mr. Kirchen’s new CD stops at just about every station the Telecaster master has visited in his career – from Texas swing (“One More Day”) to Motown (“Soul Cruisin'”), from desert blues (“Rocks Into Sand”) and good old rock and roll (“Working Man”) to gritty rockabilly (“Heart of Gold,” the masterful “Get a Little Goner”). The title track – a churning ode to the Tele, “born at the junction of form and function” – is the only hint of the self-referentiality that sometimes swamps recordings by journeyman musicians more known for their skills than their personalities. This CD covers a lot of musical ground but is showoffy in only the humblest possible way. Kirchen’s easygoing, woody hum of a voice unites all the tracks, while his guitar playing is best appreciated over multiple listens, since the songs roll so smoothly from your speakers that you tend not to notice how they are made – which is, after all, the prime sign of good music.

This CD is a strong reminder of what makes – and who made – American music great. As Kirchen sings in the self-penned “One More Day:”

I’m gonna live it up like there’s no tomorrow
Crank up the love and turn down the sorrow
Get my ducks in a row for one more day
I’m gonna lay my head on the railroad track
When the whistle blows, I’m snatchin’ it back
I’ll be needing it for one more day.

Among the tracks that Kirchen didn’t write, highlights include his groovy take on “Devil with the Blue Dress On” and his old-fashioned country arrangment of Blackie Farrell’s “Skid Row On My Mind.” But Kirchen’s own, philosophical “Rocks into Sand” is my favorite track on the CD. “Before fish ever walked on land/Time was turning rocks into sand…Sand that sifts through the hands of man…All I’ll take is what I brought/And I may not get what I sought…That’s up to the shifting sands after all.” Check out this CD before all your own sand falls through your fingers. You won’t be sorry.

Michael Jantz, Snapshots of the Universe

Michael Jantz’s folk-rock songs boast some McCartney-esque melodies and changes (“You,” “Better Than You”), along with a light, soaring sound that’s sometimes reminiscent of Jeff Buckley, especially in the slow-moving “Turn on the Radio” and the sweetly simple melody of “Always On Time.” Adding stylistic variety to this, Jantz’s second release, is a folksy, blue-eyed-blues strain, like that of a John Sebastian or Randy Newman, evident in “Sierra” and “Mama’s Comin’ Home.” Jantz’s clear but distinctive tenor voice – buttressed by a creamy falsetto – is a strong point. Another is a knack for precise hooklets, like the wordless chorus of “Love is But an Ocean” and the slithery Robert Plant echo in the chorus of “You.”

The CD sags a bit in the middle under the weight of some less inspiring material, and Jantz’s lyrics range from appealingly minimalist (“Like breathing/I believe in you”) to inexplicable (“Until the mountains resolve to stand their ground/And the children they’ll just eat anything”). But this is the sort of pop music in which lyrics are secondary anyway – with the possible exception of the ska-influenced political song “Livin’ On Sunshine.” Overall, this CD is highly enjoyable, with plenty of good songwriting and a distinctive enough sound to be a little different. Recommended.

Available with extended clips at CD Baby.

Ernie Halter, Congress Hotel

Ernie Halter is part of the recent movement of singers – think Norah Jones, Amos Lee, John Mayer, Kevin So, Alicia Keys, and the granddaddy of the style, Keb’ Mo’ – who try, with differing approaches (and levels of success), to mix singer-songwriter intimacy with soul-music intensity. Unfortunately in Halter’s case the result of the recipe is a pretty bland stew. One problem is that he has the stuffed-up vocal delivery of a punk singer. Elvis Costello gets away with singing soulful ballads and sophisticated, jazzy pop with that kind of voice, so there’s nothing wrong with it in principle. But Halter’s limited instrument just sounds thin in this setting.

Second, most of the songs seem generic, as if written by committee. The best of the “up” tunes is the opener, “One You Need,” and even this chunky, otherwise satisfying New Orleans-style soul bopper suffers from colorless singing. “Better” (a cover) is another decent, energetic number. The lovely ballad “Lisa,” based on Beethoven’s “Für Elise,” is a keeper, and Halter’s muted style works well in the sweet “Love in L.A.” But they’re specks of pepper in a generally bland gumbo. All the horns and Hammonds in Memphis won’t draw you in if the songwriting is merely competent and the vocals don’t rock with the ages.