INDIE ROUND-UP for August 25 2005

This week’s all-female edition of the Indie Round-Up is brought to you by the Sisterhood of the Happy Pants.

INDIE ROUND-UP for August 25 2005

Cruiserweight, Sweet Weaponry

Like a female-fronted Green Day or a slightly sped-up Letters to Cleo (Telegrams to Cleo?), Cruiserweight weighs in with a strong album of pop-punk. The band’s crisp songwriting isn’t brilliant, but the tunes squawk by with such raunchy energy it matters less than you might think. Sung by Stella Maxwell in vibrato-free punk style, they express in equal measure youth’s bravado and confusion, though there is a little too much sameness to them – it’s the sort of music that’s best sampled in 25-to-30-minute doses, and the CD goes on too long.

Maxwell’s brothers Urny and Yogi along with David Hawkins round out the quartet, driving the songs with modern punk precision. This is a very, very good band that has already made some waves on college radio. A hit song or two could be all that stands between them and national prominence.

Denise Barbarita, Chaos & Congeniality

Producer, guitarist and singer-songwriter Denise Barbarita’s second CD explodes out of the starting gate with three chilly-sweet songs that restore your faith in the spirit of art-pop originality. Barbarita’s talents as producer and sonic guitar artist are matched by her vocal power and, most important, a fine melodic sense that lifts her best songs to majestic heights.

Starting the CD with the spooky “In Pieces” might have been a little risky but it turns out to be an excellent introduction to all her strengths. Imagine a Tori Amos (circa Little Earthquakes) style melody over a Led Zeppelin acoustic-guitar hum with a gushing U2 production, and you’ll have some idea of what this song is made of. “Happy Happy” is a a short and sweet knockout punch of an anger song (it’s the most requested at her shows), and “Appleseed” has a gorgeous melody, swelling choral backing vocals and sweeping waves of sound from keyboards, guitars and percussion that form a bed of lush aural blossoms for the song’s somewhat abstract narrative.

The acoustic guitar-driven “For What It’s Worth” (not the old Buffalo Springfield classic) highlights Barbarita’s powerful six-string work and rhythmic sophistication, and “Hush Hush” is a chunky riff-rocker that echoes the White Stripes.

The second half of the CD has a couple too many ballads for me, though everything is recorded with consummate taste and skill and everpresent creativity. Barbarita plays interesting and inventive games with her vocal delivery, which can make the lyrics difficult to make out, so including them in the liner notes would have been a plus. “Fractured” and “Only Blue” are jazz-tinged slow numbers, the latter an especially haunting song about the heartache of losing communication, lovely but requiring a couple of listens to appreciate its subtleties. (Listen for David Weintraub’s otherworldly electric guitar fills.)

Barbarita’s rock roots push back aboveground in the two-part hallucinatory jam “The Last Breakdown,” with her sharp vocal stabs pushing in and out of the mix like bursts of distant thunder and lightning. Make sure to stick around for yet more spookiness in the unlisted tenth track, a increasingly dissonant sort of raga-chant that might take you some place you’ve never been.

Extended samples are available at CD Baby here.

Tina Schlieske, Slow Burn

Mixing blue-eyed soul with southern rock and a dash of country, Tina Schlieske (formerly of Sire Records’ Tina and the B-Sides) presents a nicely produced new CD graced by heavy-hitter contributors like producer Sheldon Gomberg (Beck) and keyboardist Benmont Tench (Tom Petty, etc. etc.) But bland songwriting and tired-sounding singing make this CD a wallflower at the soul revival meeting.

I’d never heard of her, but Schlieske has a substantial track record and strong vocal chops – she was recruited to front Stevie Ray Vaughn’s band Double Trouble in 2001, and in live appearances is often said to evoke the spirit of Janis Joplin (you can hear that influence in many of her songs, most notably “Everyday”). But it sounds as if either her heart wasn’t really in this recording session, or someone was influencing her to hold back. Equally important, while Schlieske has an obvious love and affinity for seventies-style soul and for soul-influenced rock such as the Stones, Bonnie Raitt and The Band were doing three and four decades ago, she doesn’t breathe new life into the classic sounds, instead using her talents only to retread them. The result is a “been there, heard that” feeling, full of evocations and lovingly replicated trappings but little freshness.

Good songs can render such matters unimportant – a good song is a good song no matter its setting – but these are mostly pretty pedestrian. Even so, a singer of Schlieske’s ability ought to have been able to make more of them. But throughout this CD her voice sounds tired. (I can imagine this material sounding more exciting in a live setting.) A few songs stand out: “Son of a Gun,” echoing the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” is catchy and rocks hard. “Baby Blue” has an easy Motown-ish charm, and “Never Knew Love” is a tasteful take on the type of three-four ballad exemplified by Aretha Franklin’s “Do Right Woman Do Right Man” and Janis Joplin’s “Maybe.” But despite the sharp production and a few flashes of inspiration, one can’t get away from the fact that the CD just plain sounds tired.