INDIE ROUND-UP for May 5 2005

It’s only natural that a male-dominated music industry should use its promotional juggernaut to turn attractive female singers into icons. What’s more interesting is when it tries to reverse the process and turn icons and other cute things into singers. Lil Jon, who is collaborating with the much-less-stupid-than-she-looks Paris Hilton on a CD, is quoted in the New York Times as saying that people told him “‘You’ve got to be kidding, she can’t sing,’… But it didn’t really matter to me because she is sexy. And if you can capture that on a record, she could easily sell a million quick.” Meanwhile Paula Abdul is in trouble for allegedly coaching an American Idol contestant with whom she was also secretly romantically involved. The thought of Paula Abdul – a good dancer and choreographer, not a bad actress, but not even remotely a singer – “coaching” a contestant in a singing competition just made me laugh. Then there’s J-Lo – ’nuff said.

INDIE ROUND-UP for May 5 2005

CD: Third Road Home, Venus In Retrograde

So, call me a wacko, but I prefer singers who can sing, like Third Road Home’s Trinity Demask. The Colorado singer-songwriter and her husband, multi-string-guy Tom Demask, have created (mostly in their living room) a very nice-sounding Americana CD. In well-written songs documenting the landscape of life, the contrast between Trinity Demask’s plaintive tone and the lyrics’ mostly positive outlook gives the whole production the natural tension that good music is all about. There’s nothing adventuresome about Third Road Home, but with vivid lyrics, good melodies and strong choruses – as in the lively songs “Awakening,” “Come Undone” and “Whatever Is,” the sturdy ballad “True North,” and the lovely, whispery “Not the Same” – you don’t need to reinvent the wheel or jump off any cliffs to make a beautiful sound.

The songs can go slightly awry when their lyrics do too much telling and not enough showing. “Here With You Today” has some vivid lines (“Joy rides and broken-down cars/Searching for clarity in smoky bars/Desert sun, icy rain/Hearing that same old song again” but also some dry wordiness: “All the timely misfortunes, all the turns that left me open/Decisions that I feared from opportunity had led me astray/Have led me here to you today.” But the only sizable flaw on this CD is the inclusion of a few weak non-originals. The boring “Make It Plain” and the awful “The Distance Between You and I” stick out like sore thumbs (and not just because of the misbegotten grammar) from this otherwise sweet-sounding and tasteful collection. Fortunately Trinity Demask, the group’s main songwriter, writes as well as she sings. She and her able partner and team have made a valuable addition to the acoustic-Americana shelf.

CD: Arlan Feiles, Razing a Nation (The Ballad of a New Lone Ranger)

Moving from the music of sweetness to the music of pain, we encounter Arlan Feiles, a folk troubador from New York City with a penchant for war stories. Sometimes you can really hear in people’s music where they make their home, and the passionate intensity in Feiles’s voice and melodies does indeed suggest the oppressiveness that sometimes makes city life tough to bear. The songs are about soldiers, sometimes literally, other times using battle imagery to express a lover’s feelings, almost always looking at life as a battle to be fought. “I Fell” is a rare exception, a simple love song with only a tiny touch of melancholy.

Throughout the CD Feiles’s quavery voice, half Adam Duritz and half Dave Matthews, stands front and center against the plain acoustic-guitar background. Other than a little harmonica, occasional piano (all played feelingly by Feiles) and a few backing vocals, that’s all there is, but it’s enough.

The CD is almost a concept album, an extended tableau of one man’s stand for honor and love against opposing forces. My only complaint is that there’s too much sameness of tone to merit a thirteen-song, 50-minute opus. Once you get seven or eight songs in, you’ve gotten the picture and the singing is starting to sound whiny. (But don’t miss the Dylanesque “I Will Come For You” near the end.)

EP: Central Services, self-titled

If you’re in the mood for some jaunty rock with one leg in the late 60s and one in the present, you could do a lot worse than Central Services. Moving from deft power-pop to wavy acoustic grooves, the Seattle group has a knack for harmonies and hooks. Kevin Emerson, who is also the drummer for Math and Physics Club, has a controlled, airy tenor that isn’t terribly strong but works nicely with the band’s delicate arrangements. His sensibility as a songwriter has a subtle dark side, too, as evidenced by “Perfect Drug.”

Their press materials reference Fountains of Wayne and Ben Folds, but they’re neither as hard as the former nor as syrupy as the latter, and their sound harks back to the era of the Byrds and the Turtles as much as it nods to contemporary pop fauna. Though there’s nothing quite as catchy here as “Stacy’s Mom” or “Eleanor,” it’s a promising start for Emerson and his talented crew.

[Cross-posted at Blogcritics]