Music Reviews: Matt Morris, Lee “Scratch” Perry, Asylum Street Spankers

Matt Morris, Backstage at Bonnaroo and Other Acoustic Performances

Listening to Matt Morris, intimate is the word that comes most readily to mind. His high, fluty tenor, recorded closely into the mic, wafts his words into your consciousness like a message carried on the wind.

The first three songs on this sparsely produced EP have little more than Morris's voice and acoustic guitar, with a few subtle lead guitar fills. For the final two tracks he switches to piano. On "Let It Go" Morris flutters close to Antony territory. The disc closes with "The Un-American," a deceptively sweet-sounding condemnation of consumer culture that nicely bookends the opener, "Money," with its pithy explanation that "Money ain't the villain / It's greed that's the killer."

Speaking of money, Morris, known for writing for Christina Aguilera and Kelly Clarkson, is being championed by Justin Timberlake.  But in spite of these glittery associations, as a singer-songwriter he has a way of gently delivering serious lyrics that harks back to the early solo work of David Crosby, and to the more modern singer-songwriter feel of Elliott Smith. At the same time, his voice, though soft and plaintive, has an up-close tang and controlled yet emotional falsetto heights that make one think of what Jeff Buckley might have sounded like if he'd been able to write material with real hooks.

Lee "Scratch" Perry, Scratch Came Scratch Saw Scratch Conquered

It's hard to keep up with dub-reggae pioneer Lee "Scratch" Perry, even for us relative youngsters. At 72, he's still putting out a full-length CD roughly every year.

Since I last wrote about Scratch he's released two discs. The newest features appearances by Keith Richards and George Clinton, but despite the heavy-hitting guests, this hourlong CD is all about Scratch and his new collaborator-producer Steve Marshall. (The two also worked together on Scratch's Grammy-nominated disc last year.)

Either you dig Scratch or you don't. Trancelike but jovial, self-obsessed but always with a slightly scary wink, the man and the music seem one. The dub and classic reggae elements are all here: the horns, the repetition, the stops, the sound effects, the social consciousness, the religion, the aphorisms, the weed. Then Scratch adds the flights of fancy and the wordplay. "Riches come / And riches goes / Cigarette come / Cigarette goes / But I remain / I am the rain / I remain," he declares in "Jealousy."

"Sinful Fuckers" needs no further explanation.

"Ha ha ha ha," he proclaims sleepily in "Yee Ha Ha Ha." "La la la la / Ha ha ha ha." And so it goes. Light something up and dive in. But look out. As George Clinton intones, "Headz Gonna Roll."

Asylum Street Spankers, What? And Give Up Show Biz?

The busy Asylum Street Spankers are back with a live double CD recorded at a series of concerts in New York City earlier this year. The Spankers are always fun, but they're more fun in person, and this set captures a good bit of the wacky, childish-for-grownups fun that makes their concerts such a hoot.

There's a mix of favorite Spankers numbers ("Beer," "Winning the War on Drugs," "Blade of Grass"), newer tunes, and classic covers like "I Got My Mojo Workin'" and "Since I Met You Baby," all strung together with spit, twine, musical saw, between-songs banter, and silly tales about life on the road. There are even a couple of songs from the band's recent children's album, including "You Only Love Me For My Lunchbox." And don't miss "Hick Hop," Wammo's fusion of country and western murder ballads and gangsta rap.

The Spankers handle blues, old-timey jazz, country, bluegrass, nearly every style you might hear at a postmodern vaudeville show – even a little rock – with equal skill, and a big dollop of silliness that wouldn't work half as well without the high-level musicianship; they make it look (or sound) easy.

Most often I wouldn't suggest a live album as a good introduction to a band, but if you haven't heard the Spankers, and you don't mind a fair amount of banter in between songs, this wouldn't be a bad place to start at all. At the very least it will probably make you want to catch a show when this clever, funny, and well-traveled band of zany gypsies comes to your town.