Indie Round-Up for October 20 2005: Man Alive, Danny Draher

Man Alive, Open Surgery

One of the better punk-driven rock bands I’ve heard on disc lately, Man Alive hails from the unlikely location of Israel but is brought to you by the Militia Group, the lean and muscular West Coast label that also promotes Copeland (and other promising new bands). With big, husky vocals, a mix of punk shouts and sing-along melodies, and a forceful two-guitar attack, they owe much to their punk forebears (both “pure” and pop), but most bands with a similar sound don’t write as well as Man Alive.

Most of the songs are loud, crunchy, and on the fast side, though the slowish “Say What You Want” almost treads into Tears for Fears territory. In several songs (like “Stationary” and “Rewind”) the band fits multi-part arrangements, including time changes, into three-minute spans without breaking the integrity of the songs. The opening track, “Give Me a Sign,” is a catchy, anthemic distillation of stuttering, alienated youth:

Tell me how, how long were you planning to wait for
Are you in or are you out. Give me a sign, boy
You take it in. You take it in but you hold on for
For anything, for anything while everything passes you by

The real heart of the album is “Catch Phrases, Slogans and Chants,” an impassionate diatribe against conformity and in favor – surprisingly for a band with a punk attitude – of quiet:

There are times for silence
And there are times for action
But mostly there are times to listen
And listen with some love

Even with their agile songwriting and rough-edged sound, Man Alive doesn’t fully escape the sameness that persists in most of today’s punk-influenced rock. The context in which this band is good is a rather narrow one. Someone like the bluesman Danny Draher (see below) stays within a well-worn set of conventions too, but has a broader musical palette to work with and thus can record an album that’s over twice as long but never gets boring. Once you’ve listened to the 35 minutes of Open Surgery, though, you feel you’ve gotten everything Man Alive is about. It’s why people go nuts when a band like the White Stripes comes along – they’re excited to see someone using the old tools to build something even a little bit new. Man Alive uses their old tools very well, and they’re certainly a band worth watching. But I’ve received a lot of CDs in this genre recently, and when even the best of them (like this one) feels sort of old-hat, I wonder if there’s much juice left in the old punk-rock lemon.

Danny Draher, Big Fun Tonite!

Veteran Chicago guitarist Danny Draher‘s debut CD as a leader is a blues album that sounds as good as it feels and vice versa. Draher touches on many of the song types you’d expect from a bluesman: long, slow jams like the epic “Don’t Know Much,” which features guest legends Dr. John on piano and Bernard Purdie on drums; funkified numbers like “My Desire”; the slow, crashing swing of “I Don’t Know Why”; tasty jump blues like “Garlic & Onions”; the rock-fortified “Disco Woman”; and arrangements that suggest earthy, sloshy big-band swing, like “32nd & 3rd,” where Chris Foreman provides an especially brilliant Hammond organ solo and the group gives a clinic in drawing high energy from a laid-back groove.

Recording all original songs was a good choice. Many blues artists mix covers with originals, and too often the originals don’t measure up in comparison, if only because the well-known traditional songs are so deep in the bones of the blues audience. Since Draher can write, play and sing well in all these blues modes I’m glad he lent his skills to his own material.

A sideman of choice for the likes of Etta James and Allen Toussaint, and a musician with a very long resume, Draher is a good singer who’s obviously absorbed some of the spirit of the great blues shouters: listen to “Goin’ Home” for some of the best evidence. But he makes his mark with his guitar, which speaks volumes, sometimes with few notes, often with many, but always exactly the right amount, and each infused with human warmth. His touch on the instrument is fluid but funky, deft but full-tilt, with plenty of tonal and stylistic variety, drawing as he does from the whole tradition of blues- and blues-inspired guitar, from jazz to pop, swamp to swing, Albert King to the Allman Brothers.

On most of these songs the only chordal instrument besides Draher’s guitar is the Hammond B3 organ (mostly played by the exquisite Foreman but with turns by other excellent players as well). Drums and sometimes bass are the only other presences on most tracks. Yet the small combos produce a wonderfully full sound because Draher surrounds himself with musicians who play, as he does, with equal measures of heart and skill. One of the best indicators of this is the beautifully syrupy instrumental ballad “Love For You,” which would sound perfectly at home on the dance floor at a Long Island wedding. Listen carefully to Draher’s and Foreman’s solos, though, and you’ll always hear something that goes just beyond the common tropes and cliches. In venturing their furthest from the blues, Draher and his group demonstrate best their mastery of and love for it. At nearly 80 minutes long, this CD leaves you wanting more, because it’s just plain fun, and that’s the ultimate test of a successful (and in this case overdue) debut.

[Cross-posted at Blogcritics]