INDIE ROUND-UP for June 30 2005

This time around, from my mailbox to your computer screen, we’ve got Heartlanders, Hornicators, and the (so far, anyway!) Acoustic Album of the Year. Read on, dear listeners, for here is the one and only…

INDIE ROUND-UP for June 30 2005

Thomas Truax, Audio Addiction

Thomas Truax invents his own instruments, which in itself makes him worth a listen. With contraptions like the Cadillac Beatspinner Wheel and the hornicator, interesting and amusing sounds seem inevitable. I suspect Truax is better experienced live, however, than on CD. The eccentric material he writes to show off his odd contraptions and offbeat sense of humor is only intermittently fun and clever.

“My Wife Had a Dream,” one of the better numbers, boasts something of the geek-chic pioneered by the Residents and Kraftwerk and popularized by Thomas Dolby, the B-52s and early Talking Heads. “The Butterfly & the Entomologist” is a moody, surrealistic spoken-word tale featuring the aforementioned Beatspinner. As a piece of music, it suggests the echo of some obscure PJ Harvey wail, but once you’ve absorbed the unique sounds of Truax’s instruments, you may find the piece lasting several minutes longer than necessary.

“The Fish,” a hornicator feature with vocals and lyrics that seem to consciously evoke the B-52s (and Fred Schneider’s vocal style) is like a B-52s song minus the song. “Hornicator On The Orient Express,” which has no singing, is actually a better feature for the instrument, along with others both standard and unique – from violin to wind-up mobile – and what Truax and his collaborators can do with them. “When You Get Down” is a jaunty little tale of sexuality unbound, with a Peer Gynt quote that jumps right out at you, and “Swappin’ Spit” has some macabre drama to it. But on the whole, this music is more about the medium than the message.

Truax is currently on tour in Britain. I‘d look forward to seeing a live show when he gets back to New York, because it looks as if the stage is where the real Thomas Truax action is at.

Danielle Miraglia, Nothing Romantic

Danielle Miraglia’s country/folk/blues sound descends in large part from Mississippi John Hurt, and she is a worthy carrier of that guitar-picking tradition. Her voice, reminiscent of Bonnie Raitt’s, is strong but vulnerable, feminine but never precious, with a gutwrenching catch to it. Her guitar playing is both accomplished and soulful, and her songs tap into the ur-melodies and fundamental chord changes that form the essence of western music, while still saying something in a distinct and original voice.

Both as a writer and as a musician Miraglia maintains a deep connection to traditional styles of playing and singing. The folky “Snow Globe,” with only her guitar-picking as accompaniment, may be the saddest and best song about self-imposed isolation since Simon and Garfunkel’s “I am a Rock.” From its sparse beauty Miraglia segues into the draggy blues of “Sell My Soul,” the obligatory “I wanna be a star” confessional every highly talented, unjustly obscure singer-songwriter has to write. It has the kind of dirty-blues feel John Hiatt mined a few years ago on his masterful Crossing Muddy Waters album.

Normally I’m not much for feel-good folk weepies, but it’s hard to resist “Moment By Moment” with its earworm of a chorus and Kevin So lending backing vocal and keyboard support. “Say One Thing” is yet another winner, a harshly funny indictment of hypocrisies large and small:

Said the blind man, This is how I see it
Said the stalker, If you love that bird then free it
Said the white-hooded man, Love your brother
Say one thing and do another

Miraglia’s lyrics are full of such pithiness. “Better,” a clever and bouncy country-folk love song, leads into her masterpiece, “You Don’t Know Nothin’,” one of the best new folk songs I’ve heard in years. Its depiction and dissection of human misunderstanding is both sharp and tender. All you need to know about what drives people apart and what draws them together can be witnessed in a few hours spent in a bar. Many of us feel something along those lines, but Danielle Miraglia is that rare songwriter who can put it into words.

Returning to the country-blues groove, but in a minor key, “Cry” is literally about the grim frustration of being an infant who can’t communicate her feelings. Perhaps metaphorically it’s about artistic expression, but the lyrics draw such vivid pictures there’s no need to reach for meaning. It’s a fitting subject for a songwriter who’s so good at getting to the roots of things: what could be more rootsy than infancy?

The title track sounds like a traditional country shuffle about life on the road, and for the most part it is, but it turns the cliched American “romance of the highway” on its head: “There nothing romantic about a highway/No big revelations, nothing new/And I can write a road song any day/There’s nothing romantic about missing you.” Then, in “The Only Way to Win,” the protagonist pleads amusingly for misfortune and heartache so she can write great songs, sing the blues with authenticity and become a star.

In the pretty closer, “The Wind,” Miraglia sings folk with authenticity. But it’s the kind of song any reasonably talented folkie could have come up with. Danielle Miraglia’s talents go far beyond that modest level. This CD kicks Americana ass.

Available at shows and at CD Freedom.

Danielle Miraglia is performing at the Soul of the Blues Summer Festival in New York City on the night of July 28.

Rob Russell & the Sore Losers, Lucky On The Side

Shouting like Phil Lynott, worldly and passionate like John Mellencamp, Rob Russell wails his heart out in every song on this CD. But lots of singers can wail; you still need good songs, and these guys have some really fine ones. If there were still a radio format that played straight-ahead grown-up rock, the insistently catchy opening track, “What Do You Know,” would be a hit.

“American Bastard” is a pumped-up (in fact, slightly overblown) evocation of the musical life:

I’m just the bastard of ceremonies
Singing with a fair degree of acrimony
How am I gonna please a bunch of drunks like these?

It’s pretty good, but the CD’s second real standout track is “Swing Swing,” a gorgeous power ballad with a Springsteen-like harmonica intro and a passionate intensity all Russell’s own.

“The Great Depression” and “After the Flood” are workmanlike heartland rockers with an Eagles influence. Even in these less hooky songs, Russell’s vocals lift the work a notch above typical rock. “It’s Time,” a very Eagles-like midtempo ballad, is a good example of Russell’s ability to invest plainspoken lyrics that might look cliched on the page with intense emotion.

All these walls of silence and sound
We build them up,
we burn them down
Got to build a home on solid ground
I think it’s time

Russell delivers vocals like these as if both his life and yours depended on you understanding every word. Throughout this CD, his keen tenor catches the ear and won’t let go.

The melodies and harmonies in “Believer” sound pleasingly Mellencampy, but the best slow song next to “Swing Swing” is the lovely, jangly country-folk tune “World Turns Blue.” “Cured” and “Hey Hey Hey,” for their part, tread the middle ground between heartland and southern rock, and that’s for the most part where Rob Russell and the Sore Losers have positioned themselves. Not all their songs click perfectly, but the best ones are very good, and few bands have the benefit of such an emotionally gripping singer. The band robustly backs up Russell’s powerful voice; the whole production sounds solidly live and up-front, though the album clearly doesn’t have the benefit of a major label production budget.

Available, with extended samples, at CD Baby.

[Cross-posted at Blogcritics]