Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Oldies, Goodies, and Bands from Down Under

Stone Coyotes, Dreams of Glory

You need this: another ass-kicking from the Stone Coyotes, a wife-husband-stepson trio that might be making the purest rock of any band working today. Tossing together the straight-ahead power chords of AC/DC, the snarl of the Rolling Stones, and the juicy storytelling of country music, the veteran singer, songwriter, and guitarist Barbara Keith hasn’t lost an ounce of her grit and cred. Doug Tibbles bashes the drums like a man possessed, while son John Tibbles solidly handles the bass.

“You could say I’m a starry-eyed dreamer/You could say I’m a troubador of old/You could say I’m a high plains drifter/Or a prospector digging for gold,” Keith hollers in “Digging for Gold,” and you believe she’s all those things. “Johnny Rock’s Cantina” and a straightforward cover of “Streets of Laredo” expose a soft underbelly, while two live tracks at the end capture the band out-rocking most acts half their age. No need to dig for the gold here, the vein runs right over the surface.

Listen at their Myspace page.

John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, In the Palace of the King

Another year, another solid release from John Mayall, the godfather of British blues. In the Palace of the King is a tribute to the late, great Freddie King, one of Mayall’s important inspirations and influences. It features songs associated with King, along with a couple written in his honor, and works quite well as a tribute, but it’s every particle a John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers album.

Mayall’s voice has both clarified and thinned with age, but it was never the central point of his records anyway. His harmonica sounds as sweet as ever, his piano flies free on his bouncing tribute to King (“King of the Kings”), and he has, in Buddy Whittington, a worthy successor to the great guitarists who have graduated from Mayall’s lineups over the decades (Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Mick Taylor, Coco Montoya, and Walter Trout among others). Blues guitar fans will dig this album for Whittington alone.

As an extra treat, Robben Ford guest stars on his own instrumental blues “Cannonball Shuffle,” which is appropriate since Freddie King was known for having hits with instrumentals. (The Bluesbreakers’ relationship with these King tunes goes all the way back to the recording of “Hideaway” on the legendary 1966 album with Eric Clapton and John McVie.) Another point to note is the presence of several songs with Leon Russell’s name on them, which can never be a bad thing.

Moodwise, this CD lies towards the brighter end of the Mayall spectrum, so throw it on at a party and you should see a lot of smiling faces.

Highly recommended for blues fans.

Marty Stuart, Compadres: An Anthology of Duets

Marty Stuart is one of the best-known least-known artists in country music and beyond. This collection of collaborations between the mandolinist extraordinaire and a bevy of musical heavyweights bears witness to the royal circles he’s moved in ever since joining up with Lester Flatt at the ripe old age of thirteen.

Recorded at various sessions and situations over the years, these fourteen tracks show the broad range of Stuart’s interests and abilities as singer, interpreter, and of course, player. More importantly, they’re just plain good listenin’. From an early “Rawhide” with Flatt, to the gospel “Move Along Train” with Mavis Staples, and back to a curious, nouveau-bluegrass version of The Who’s “I Can See For Miles” with Old Crow Medicine Show, this CD is all about good times and good feeling.

Johnny Cash on “Doin’ My Time” sounds as bubbly as the Man in Black ever managed. Stuart goes toe to toe with B. B. King in a shuffling “Confessin’ the Blues,” and on a sloshy bar-room bender with Travis Tritt in “The Whisky Ain’t Workin’.” The previously unreleased duet with Loretta Lynn on the sweetly sad classic “Will You Visit Me On Sunday” is a small country treasure. Even “John Henry” makes an appearance (in a scintillating instrumental duet with Earl Scruggs), as does the almost as legendary George Jones in “One Woman Man.” The Staples Singers’ harmonies in “The Weight” approach the sublime (as the Staples Singers are wont to do).

While the album cannot boast a consistent sound, Marty Stuart has a steady and recognizable presence here and wherever he works despite lacking the outlandish sort of personality that lands other stars in the tabloids. Refugees from today’s commercial country music might want to think about heading his way.

The Mugwumps, The Mugwumps

Solve for x: The Great Society is to Jefferson Airplane as x is to the Mamas and the Papas. Answer: x = The Mugwumps, the 1964 New York City-based folk-rock band that included Denny Doherty and “Mama” Cass Elliot (future Mamas and Papas), Zal Yanovsky (who subsequently co-founded the Lovin’ Spoonful), and Elliot’s then-husband, future Nashville songwriter Jim Hendricks. Until now, few knew of the Mugwumps except as a precursor to more important things, and perhaps from the lyrics to the autobiographical song “Creeque Alley” that the Mamas and the Papas recorded a few years later. Now their one album has been reissued by Collectors’ Choice, and we can all hear the glory that was the Mugwumps.

OK, glory isn’t the right word. But you can certainly hear elements of what would become the signature sound of the Mamas and the Papas. The multiple lead voices, the joyful, echoey choral parts, and the folksy jangles mixed like sparkly bits into the pop bubblegum all looked forward to the rock greatness that was to come later in the decade.

The Mugwumps, however, also had a Beatles-like affinity for rootsiness and rhythm and blues – formative rock-and-roll – as evidenced by their pounding rendition of Felix Pappalardi’s “Do You Know What I Mean,” their rambunctious cover of the Willie Dixon-penned rhythm and blues classic “You Can’t Judge a Book By the Cover” (a hit for Bo Diddley two years earlier), and their straightforward version of the Coasters’ “Searchin’.”

It was the age of the two-to-three minute single. The album is all of twenty-two minutes long, typical for its time. But it isn’t just the shortness of the songs that distills the Mugwumps’ incipient creative force. I think there is something of the gritty energy of New York City in this record. No believing in magic here. Still there’s a pinch of something like magic in the two wistful originals by Elliot and Hendricks, “Here It Is Another Day” and “Everybody’s Been Talkin’.” Both songs have a gentle sadness about them that presage, perhaps, the now legendary personal dramas that were to come.

Charlotte Kendrick, North of New York

Back in the present day, and up the Hudson a bit, singer-songwriter Charlotte Kendrick and her producer-collaborator husband, Dan Rowe, craft elegant, breathy folk-Americana tunes which Kendrick sings in a velvety voice that’s soothing like a soft sofa after a long hard day.

Her new CD is one you have to take a little time to sink into, mostly because it opens with a song that’s too much like a naked diary entry to be art. Fortunately the energy picks up along with the tempo in the mandolin-driven “Off the Tracks,” after which you’re ready for the more focussed sentimentality of the gentle ballad “Best Of Me.” My favorite track is “Yellow,” a true and perfect little folk song with a sharp lesson: “There’s no secret password, no code to crack/It’s not a race or a contest if you’re still keeping score/You will always have less, they will always have more.”

“Too Nice” is another winner, its deceptively simple melody carrying a strong message about an excessively image-conscious society. “And I’m willing to risk it all/Set myself up for a fall/You only reap what you sow/And I’ll do all that I can/To make this worth it for my band/Do my job and keep my man/Settle down on a little land/Take in the woman that I am/’Cause nice won’t get me anywhere.” Subtle, sharp stuff. Her declaration of independence, in “Laces,” is tinged with confrontation: “Who’s got the front seat now?” The songs are full of such complications.

When the lyrics get prosaic, the songs bog down. “Drag You Down” has a pretty melody, but it’s undercut by lines that don’t flow: “I won’t talk about the future if you find it hard/It’s just that I was mesmerized by you from the start/But I’ve got nothing on you, you’ve got everything on me.” This comes, I suspect, from Kendrick’s inclination to examine matters of the heart with obsessive closeness, with both positive and negative consequences. When the lyrics are good, they’re very good, and the songs rise above standard folkie fare and into Nancy Griffith and Stefanie Fix territory.

The CD will most often be listened to less closely, however, and if you’re in the mood for this gentle kind of stuff, it should give a lot of pleasure. I played it in the background at my office and it sure sweetened the day.

Recommended for fans of soothing folk music and intelligent voices. Available, with extended clips, at CD Baby.

Second Dan, Bringing Down Goliath

Second Dan, the New York band led by the Australian Dan Rosen, makes muscular alt-rock that’s tight and noisy at the same time. That tension sometimes puts on a new-wave 1980s face, like early U2 or Midnight Oil, with a little ska flavor here and there. The verse of “You Make Me Want To” even sounds a little like latter-day Who. But the overall intensity suggests influences from Nirvana and Foo Fighters, not to mention post-9/11 angst.

The tunes and arrangements are well crafted but it’s mostly the power and the mood, along with some of the trapeze artistry in the background vocals – all bolstered by rock-solid production – that stick with you. (An exception is the melodic, danceable “The Elephant Fell to Earth.”) Second Dan is good with the occasional acoustic ballad too – the rich concoction called “Everything Is Good” suggests Radiohead.

This is strong stuff from a promising band. A couple of killer hooks could propel them to the front ranks of modern rock with the likes of Copeland.

Hear full tracks at their Myspace page.

Heartbreak Club, …Lamecore

Another Australian import with a very different vibe, this adorably cheeky pop-punk EP makes fun of teenage pain with a wink and a wag of the tail. “Here’s to me. I’ve just lost my everything. This pout and mope industry justifies something cruel,” says the arch narrator of “The Girl @ TGUK.” Liberal use of dynamics, a hefty but hollow guitar attack descended from Blue Oyster Cult, and offbeat lyrics and snatches of conversation churn through songs with titles like “She Talked To Me!” and “Boy Said/Girl Said.” The funny “Bethanie” that starts the EP and the acoustic “Like the Weather” that closes it are like two sides of the same sigh – boy loses girl, boy gets girl – but the very last line of “Like the Weather” pulls the rug out: “Oh what a ruse.”

Hear full tracks at their Myspace page.