Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Harris, Foster, Sea Dragons, The States

Corey Harris, Zion Crossroads

Perhaps more than any other artist, Corey Harris has mastered and synthesized the several traditions of African Diaspora music. A roots-music archeologist as much as he is a singer-songwriter and guitarist, Harris always reveals something fundamental about the music even as he puts his own wide-awake stamp on it, whether it’s blues, soul, Afropop or reggae.

Harris’s first Telarc release is a big change from Daily Bread, which came out on Rounder Records two years ago. That album ranged across several styles and traditions, and consisted mostly of humanistic or personal songs. Zion Crossroads on the other hand is almost pure reggae, and highly political. On both counts it’s an exciting set of music.

For an artist writing such socially aware songs, a sense of playfulness is important, to counterbalance the grim state of the world he’s describing and engaging. Harris brings just enough merriment to his writing and recording. Lively beats and melodies animate serious subject matter in “No Peace for the Wicked” (with guest vocals by Ranking Joe), “Keep Your Culture,” and “Afrique (Chez Moi)” – the last sung in fractured French.

High spirits give way to heavier hearts in songs like “Heathen Rage”: “Jah made us to live in a free world/Babylon take it and make it a he world/Leave out the mothers, daughters, and the females/Leave out the blacks and they left out the browns/Make them to build up your cities and towns/Steal their religion and turn them into clowns.” But injustice does not make the songs plod or sound bitter. To my non-African ears, Harris gets the reggae language and lilt down perfectly: “trodding inna Zion/children got to ride on/just like a conquering lion/true true African.” The CD is a worthy addition both to Corey Harris’s discography and to the reggae tradition.

Listen at Myspace and download a free track at the Telarc website.

Jack Foster III, Tame Until Hungry

“There’s no mythology in pain.” From the first lyric on Jack Foster III’s new CD, we can tell we’re not in for everyday prog-rock bombast. These thirteen complex, richly orchestrated songs, sung assuredly in Foster’s thick baritone and stretched high with grand harmonies, mine the varied terrains of hard rock, acoustic music, and melodic progressive rock. At the same time, they’re firmly layered in the deeper tradition of plain old song.

There is even a sense – a modest one – of a lighter touch than that wielded by many progressive-minded artists. “Civilized Dog” swings close to rootsiness, and “One Dark Angel” with its mellow harmonies even flirts with the heartland before devolving into a powerful sax solo (by David Hipshman).

Some of the songs on the second half of the CD get a little preachy, or prosaic. But almost always they’re rescued by a rave-up, a shredfest (though always musical), or a power-funk jam that lifts the song back to the heights of Foster’s best. And the musicianship is masterful throughout, with Foster’s brilliant guitar work joined by Trent Gardner’s keyboards and Robert Berry’s bass and drums. Both are top-notch musicians and veteran producers who’ve worked with big-name acts like Magellan, ELP, Dream Theater and Yes, and both are impeccably good.

Each song is fully imagined, like a well-written fantasy story. Yet, as promised in that initial lyric, they are not weighed down with mythology. This is grown-up, solidly original rock for thinking people.

Sea Dragons, Sea Dragons (EP)

Session guitarist and renaissance man Darryl Thurston formed the Sea Dragons to showcase his sparkly pop songwriting, which is based in the (mostly) happy-go-lucky sounds of the 60s and 70s. Think of the Rolling Stones without the pseudo-Satanic side, with a little George Harrison and bubblegum psychedelia thrown into the pot. “Sweet Delilah” is an obvious but irrestible pop nugget driven by an insistent tambourine, while “Come September” cheerfully evokes the Byrds with biting guitar blasts and close harmonies. “Stop Draggin’ Me Down” could be a lost hit by somebody like Three Dog Night circa 1970, while “Drown” evokes T. Rex. The EP’s introspective moment comes in the pretty love song “Fall Into You.” Each song tickles the pop funnybone in a slightly different way.

Listen at their website or their Myspace page, or purchase at CD Baby.

The States, The Path of Least Resistance

The States have a talent for interesting arrangements, multicolored three-dimensional guitar melodies, and vividly descriptive lyrics. “I spent days drawing up the plan. It was perfect, perfect. You can build where you don’t belong if you’re cautious, cautious,” sings Chris Snyder in “The Architect.” Unfortunately Snyder’s outstanding guitar work outshines his vocals. There are smart, creative minds in this band, excellent musicianship, and lots of parts to like. But pedestrian singing, and reliance on a manufactured sonic bravado that screams “corporate rock,” too often weaken the effect. It doesn’t help that the CD opens with its most derivative (and annoying) song, as if some unsmiling corporate overlord said, “Do one like this so it will sound like everyone else and you can get it on MTV.”

Hear some tracks here.