INDIE ROUND-UP for June 16 2005

INDIE ROUND-UP for June 16 2005

Sonya Heller, Fourth Floor

Fluid melodies, sultry, jazz-inflected vocals and introspective, literate lyrics define Sonya Heller’s most recent CD, Fourth Floor. The tunes meander too much to be pop and the writing’s too folky to be jazz; instead Heller hits a sophisticated sweet spot somewhere in between. The CD’s mood is pretty steady throughout, but her vocal range and flights of fancy keep it interesting.

Her supporting musicians, especially producer Hui Cox, make important contributions to the sophisticated sound of this recording, but it’s Heller’s softly funky acoustic guitar and controlled, tranquil, yet worldly and sometimes experimental vocals that drive the music. Think Joni Mitchell meets David Crosby on the shady side of Annie Lennox Street.

Rick Cusick, East

Rick Cusick gets some comparisons to Jack Johnson and Dave Matthews, but I don’t get the Johnson comparison: Cusick has a much less rootsy style, doesn’t have Johnson’s sexy voice, and writes more interesting songs. He does share a certain laid-back grooviness with Matthews. But much of his rock has a seventies vibe more reminiscent of Peter Frampton, the Moody Blues, or a young Billy Joel. And – with the exception of “Radio Waves,” an up-to-date complaint about radio station consolidation – the lyrics have an old-fashioned, idealistic quality, as if from a more innocent time.

This works better in some songs than others. The romantic and reflective songs, like “Light I Light,” “Falling Into You” and the overlong “Ride,” are too syrupy for my taste. I like better the ones that carry more musical tension and some darkness, even if they’re less hooky, like “East,” “Osokin” and especially “Dream.” Cusick is best at these wordy story-songs. He does overreach a bit in the sprawling epic “Afraid,” where his characteristic disconnected imagery crosses the line from evocative to unfocussed. But “Go For Better Love” is a different kind of exception, an irresistible if lyrically jumbled pop nugget.

Although Cusick puts plenty of passion into his strong, clear tenor, the voice itself sometimes has a closed-off quality that prevents him from achieving the full earthiness of a Graham Nash or the immediacy of a Dave Matthews. Even so, this ambitious and well-produced effort pays dividends. Extended song samples are available here.

Elisa Korenne, Favorite

Singer-songwriter Elisa Korenne has been making the coffeehouse circuit, but on her new album she shows her true colors as a rocker. Like Paula Cole or Sheryl Crow, she melds rock with singer-songwriter pop in a balanced recipe. She doesn’t just graft rock guitar tracks onto her songs – she can actually write rock tunes.

“Find My Strength” is an example, and it probably seemed like an appropriate opening track because of its “hear me roar” theme and tribal beat, but it lacks a punchy hook. The up-tempo alt-rocker “Road Trance” with its Alice In Chains-style chorus and Beatlesque ending has much more hit potential and a modern sound. And the strong rocker “Marrow,” because it shows instead of tells, succeeds where “Find My Strength” doesn’t in establishing the artist’s persona as a powerful woman to be reckoned with.

That is no small matter. One hears a lot these days about how “chicks rock,” but the fact is, notwithstanding mini-movements like riot grrl, when it all shakes out it becomes clear that few chicks actually rock. Or perhaps it would be better put this way: chicks don’t rock nearly as much as they would if I ran the world. That’s why it’s so satisfying to hear an artist writing real rock songs and imposing her will on the genre rather than merely trying it on or playing at it. The world would be a better place if more women were less afraid to write (or declare): “I want to know you inside-out/Let me be a parasite/So I can love you with all my might…/I need emotion to feed my soul/I know emotion’s hiding in your bones/I want your marrow.” That’s strong stuff, especially from a white, female, non-blues artist.

Korenne does try on other styles, and they fit pretty well. “Flirt With Me” is a pleasing, grungy jazz number, and “Instead” is a gorgeous original folk song about lost love, sung in perfect a capella harmonies. The heartland ballad “Butte” and the clever, circusy trifle “Andy the Lightbulb Eater” both work nicely. I’m not sure what “About” is about – maybe its lyrics are beyond my dimwitted male understanding – but it’s a fine ballad. “Honest Lies” isn’t as memorable but has the penetrating line: “Nothing’s more seductive/Than being seen right through.”

The title track is an uncharacteristic lapse into limp female singer-songwriter cutesiness, only partially rescued by producer and multi-instrumentalist Danielle A. Weiss’s harmonica solo. Overall, this is a very strong album. The only real problem is that Korenne’s voice doesn’t have the heft to get the most out of her material. I expect if she strengthened her voice she could cut loose with it more: both her rockers and her ballads would benefit, and she could really wipe the floor with the Ani DiFranco clones and Joni Mitchell wannabees of the world, not to mention the males in the audience who might make the mistake of thinking Elisa Korenne was just another pretty face on the stage.

Song samples available here.


Item! Classical-fusion duo Chris and Adelmo, who meld opera and pop forms into a new and unique musical experience, held a standing-room-only kickoff recital last night with guests including crossover star Sasha Lazard, Antonique Smith of Rent fame, and Venezuelan pianist-phenomenon Vanessa Perez. Chris and Adelmo’s demo can be heard here. They are seeking marketing ideas, new material, and arrangers.

Item! Reclusive British singer/songwriter Vashti Bunyan is deep into the recording of her first new album since 1970’s “Just Another Diamond Day.” Vashti’s new album will feature original material written in recent years or during the recording. The new CD is expected out on DiCristina Staircase late this year.

[Cross-posted at Blogcritics]