CD Reviews: Indie Round-Up for June 15 2006 – Chapin, Splitsense, Graffin, Apollo 13

Jen Chapin, Ready

Some artists, upon becoming parents, grow soft and precious in their work, but Jen Chapin remains a vital songwriter with a jazzy bite. Her new CD may be her best yet.

True, it has many quiet times and gentle sounds, and even a lullaby (“Skin”). And she addresses the “little man” in so many words more than once. But her slithery delivery, pop-inspired melodies and cutting lyrics turn even the homiest sentiment into art.

Nor has Chapin left behind her social and political consciousness. Pretty tunes and easy, jazz-soul arrangements (played by a very tasty small band that includes her husband, bassist and co-writer Stephan Crump) carry acidic observations about politics, ambition and lust. With a muted sonic palette the group paints a broad variety of pictures.

The mesmerizing “Goodbye” has an almost Brelian sadness, while the funky Rickie Lee Jones-like “Election Day” reflects Chapin’s longtime work with World Hunger Year (co-founded by her father, Harry Chapin): “We fuse all our illusions to these long lolling hours / To dreams of new sneakers and memories of funeral flowers / To each distracting handout and styrofoam meal / Leave chanting to the children a fury we conceal.”

“NYC,” reworked from the bass-and-voice version on 2002’s Open Wide, features Crump’s upright bass at its funkiest, while in the title track, a 1970s-style funk-soul groove blossoms into a spacious jam about new love.

There’s a lot to discover on this CD. Since it’s mostly on the quiet side, a couple of listens may be needed for full appreciation. But it repays the effort, plus interest.

Splitsense, Purify

This isn’t my mug of grog, but if you like supercharged headbanging alternative gloom metal, it might be yours. Splitsense is all about glowering moods and crunching guitars, not sensitive songwriting, and with lyrics like “These walls won’t last forever / Stale clouds of dust infect me” it’s just as well. That’s from the hookiest song, “As Far As I Can See.” Lead vocalist Jason’s hoarse yell is almost satanically strong, though it can soften into sensitivity, as in the ballad “Nigh,” for me the CD’s other highlight, whose melody uncharacteristically verges on the sweet. Mostly this music is a blast of adolescent anger at the world. “You’ll never break free / Of my disease / Scream / You can’t repent for all your / Sins.” “Don’t fall / Fall to your knees / Cause I can’t save you.” They’re right: Splitsense isn’t going to save the world, or anyone’s soul, or rock and roll for that matter. But they make a hell of a noise trying.

Extended samples here.

Greg Graffin, Cold As The Clay

Some fans of Bad Religion might be surprised that front man Greg Graffin is releasing an album consisting entirely of old-time American folk music and original songs inspired by it.

Some might not, though. The influential punk band’s erudite lyrics and masterful song structures contain enough clues that a variety of classic strains have informed its music. Now Graffin, one of Bad Religion’s principal songwriters (the new CD’s producer Brett Gurewitz is the other), has “set out to create a record that would honor the legacy of American music,” and he has succeeded.

Though his voice isn’t the most artful of instruments, Graffin’s love for the music shines through. He is backed on some songs by old-time musicians and on others by a rock band, but all are refreshingly under-rehearsed and heart-on-sleeve. The original songs bear Neil Young, Gram Parsons, and The Band influences, as Graffin himself points out in his liner notes – Stephen Carroll of the Weakerthans contributes a beautifully Youngian sound to “Don’t Be Afraid To Run” and “Rebel’s Goodbye” – but they also stand on their own. Among the traditionals, “The Highway” and “Talk About Suffering” (with Jolie Holland on harmony vocals) are especially touching.

Apollo 13, Lovebomb

Fusing pop, rock and electronica allows new bands to get away with old-fashioned (e.g. meaningful) songwriting without sounding dated or uncool. All sorts of comparisons come to mind listening to Apollo 13‘s new CD: Elvis Costello with a dance beat, Power Station, Cat Stevens, Deep Purple, even The Who (“Oh I can see for miles, but I still can’t find the end,” they croon in “No Sign of Land”). The band’s success on college-centric and at getting video and game placements bears witness to its hipness.

The hard-rock screamer “The Bomb” leads into the smooth techno of “Interference,” followed by the melodic “Up Up & Away” which spreads 80s-style harmonies over a thumping dance beat. “Rollin’ On” takes on hard southern-rock, with Shannon Savoie’s amped-up tenor shredding the high notes. The slinky “Another Lovely Day” suggests Robert Palmer recorded underwater, “Grandiose Palaces” sounds like Queen meeting the Turtles, and there’s a bit of soul in “Landslide to Oblivion.” Yet there’s consistent melodic and lyric depth beefing up the clever creativity of the production.

Its songs interspersed with theatrical instrumental interludes, Lovebomb isn’t quite categorizable, yet it’s both modern and accessible. That’s a tough thing to pull off. These lines from “Rollin’ On” sum up Apollo 13’s union of the tried-and-true with the up-to-the-minute: “I’m a-rollin’ down this old highway / Gonna find me a brand new life / Well I’m a-rollin’ rollin’ on / Don’t bother checking your GPS system girl / ‘Cause I’m gone yeah.”

Available, with extended clips, here.

DVD Review: The Clarks, Still Live

Two years ago I wrote about the latest studio album by Pittsburgh rockers the Clarks. Since then the band has appeared on Late Night with David Letterman, put out a greatest-hits collection, and now produced this fine live DVD (along with an accompanying audio CD).

The concert video displays the stage charisma, sharp songwriting, tight musicianship and sheer joy in making music that have made the Clarks a big regional hit for two decades. It may also contain some clues as to why success at the national level has largely eluded them.

The DVD includes 79 minutes of professionally recorded and produced concert footage of the Clarks performing a selection of their best material from their numerous CDs up to and including 2004’s Fast Moving Cars. The atmospherically lit multi-camera shoot captures plenty of different angles, band closeups, and shots of euphoric audience members singing along. The stage at Mr. Small’s Theatre in Millvale PA is small, but as the Clarks don’t jagger about the stage much it doesn’t matter.

Handsome, lanky lead singer Scott Blasey exudes confidence, yet strikes his rock-star poses with a shy smile as if he’s still amazed by the fact that he gets to do this for a living. Lead guitarist Rob James looks like he’s having the time of his life while displaying an easy mastery of all things six-string. Bassist Greg Joseph and drummer David Minarik crank out the rhythms so expertly you can sometimes forget they’re there, which is the highest praise for a rhythm section.

The foursome has undergone not a single personnel change since starting as a college band two decades ago. This consistency pays off in a seamless but big-hearted stage show. A must-have for Clarks fans, the DVD can also constitute a thorough introduction to the band for left- and right-coasters. And therein may lie the key to the mystery of why the Clarks are still regional. A thoroughbred rock band that consistently puts out catchy new songs, they are not edgy. They may be just a little too nice to conquer gnarly New York or blasé L.A.

They’ve had a lot of radio play in the Pittsburgh area, especially from their 2000 release Let It Go, and their best songs – “Maybe,” “Born Too Late,” “Shimmy Low,” “Train,” and their 9-11 tribute “Hey You” among others – are better-written than, and as radio-friendly as, much of what’s heard on modern rock and pop stations. But maybe their sound is too middle-America: too rocking to be power-pop, but too friendly to be “modern rock.” If so, it’s a shame, because – forgive the marketing-speak – few bands offer as complete a package as the Clarks do. (Personally, I’ve had it with edgy. Give me a good song over an intriguing attitude any day.)

The DVD also includes 25 minutes of interviews with the band members, giving insight into how they got started, what they’re like personally, and how they write their songs – nothing out of the ordinary, but nice to have if you’re a fan. On the technical side, the authoring is smooth, the editing and lighting are eye-catching, the sound quality is as good as one can expect from a live recording – which is pretty darn good, these days – and for eighteen songs plus interviews, the price is definitely right.

There is an audio CD available too, but it has fewer songs. For a pure audio experience, you’re better off with their best-of collection, Between Now and Then. But for Clarks fans, and for lovers of melodic rock and real, honest bands in general, I can recommend this DVD wholeheartedly.

CD Reviews: Indie Round-Up for June 1 2006 – Cass, McKean, Stigers

Jen Cass, Accidental Pilgrimage

The gentle folk-rock sound of Jen Cass‘s new CD makes an effective contrast with her sometimes pointed lyrics. It’s Cass’s most political album, containing several protest songs (one is about Phil Ochs) along with some new historical and slice-of-life sketches of the type she’s always been good at, and a few straight-ahead love songs. Not surprisingly, the latter are a little less interesting. But the CD as a whole casts a soft, steady spell under which the plainspoken lyrics can work subtle magic. “In every church another Pharisee / Tells us ‘We are right, they’re wrong / I give you sin and guilt / And Judgment Day, now let us pray, / And let us join the choir in song.'” Religous imagery is everywhere in these songs. In “Forever Damned” a young protagonist makes a bad choice in love and now must live with some unnamed but terrible consequence; yet she’s defiant: “Still…I’d choose the apple / Over every other taste / And I would savor that sweet freedom / Letting Eden go to waste.” It’s the neverending struggle between what feels right and what is right that gives Cass’s songs, even the gentlest of them, their power.

Finian McKean, Shades Are Drawn

Lo-fi urban folkie Finian McKean‘s new CD is a collection of fashionably gloomy but original-sounding songs. Like J. J. Cale he records his resigned vocals deep in the mix so you have to lean forward to listen. Beatle-esque melodies tickle the ear; sixties-style guitar rock energy (“black hole,” “small request”) leavens the sadness; and quirky writing (“little beggar,” “where no one wants me,” and an unnamed extra song at the end) helps make the whole claustrophobic enterprise fun. You can just imagine him holed up in Red Hook grousing about how no one comes to visit him because there’s no subway in the area, while mixing his rock, country and folk sounds into a gritty, citified stew. This forty-minute Brooklyn howl should put McKean and his musical neighborhood on the hipster map, if not the MTA’s.

Jake Stigers, Comin’ Back Again

This has been out for a couple of years now, but that’s a short time in indie terms, and a CD this good deserves time to build. In fact it’s a good example of why new, original artists need to go the indie route. With his pedigree (he’s popster-turned-jazzman Curtis‘s brother) and talent, Jake Stigers might be expected to have had a shot at a major label record deal. But, whether by necessity or choice, he’s gone the indie route and is probably better off for it. The CD has sold over 5,000 copies and carried Stigers through hundreds of tour dates. Based on mere four-digit sales it would have long since vanished from sight on a major label, and writers like me probably wouldn’t have heard of it, received review copies, and been able to recommend it.

I can’t give you much on Stigers’s bio or tour dates because his web site has an annoying Flash introduction that resizes my browser window. This is a big turn-off. Fortunately you don’t need the official website – you can listen to extended samples at CD Baby here.

The opening track, “Do You Feel High,” with its fuzzed out guitars, sounds a bit like a sped up Steve Miller song with an unexpected change in elevation during the chorus. “Another Negotiation” is a short and sweet high-energy rocker, with a strange, quiet little coda that leads into the Beatle-esque ballad “Only Wanna Be With You,” which is where the heart and soul of the album begins. “We Don’t Need Anybody” returns to the hard rock tip but in a soul-infused Southern rock vein, like Lynyrd Skynyrd filtered through Elton John. “Comin’ Back Again” features crying guitars, as in an Eric Clapton or Strawbs soft-rock ballad, cushioning another timeless-sounding melody.

“Marlena” is a highlight, a startlingly groovy neo-soul tune sung in a fluid falsetto, and the CD closes with “That Ain’t Livin’,” another hard driving southern-soul rocker. Stigers’s solid songwriting and his fine voice and band keep the whole thing on course. Musical comparisons aside, this CD is a whole lot of fun, and isn’t that the main point of rock anyway?

This seems to be my month to discover famous musicians’ brothers going successfully in different directions – in my last column I reviewed Zack Hexum’s new CD – but more importantly, it seems to be a year for good, well-written new pop and rock CDs. I don’t envy reviewers who have to cover major label releases in those genres. Right here is where it’s at.

OUT AND ABOUT: Mala Waldron appears live as part of my Soul of the Blues series in Brooklyn NY next Thursday, June 8, and Scott Weis performs at the next show, this one at Cornelia Street Cafe, NYC, on the 28th… Katell Keineg makes a couple of NYC and LA appearances this month. I plan to be at the NYC shows at Joe’s Pub on the 20th and the Living Room on the 30th. Come on out and introduce yourself. (Not while Katell’s playing, though, or I’ll punch you.) I’ll be the one with the beatific, rapt look. But come to think of it, that won’t work – everyone else in the audience will have the same glazed, worshipful expression. Anyway, look for a profile of Katell in the New York Times Magazine at the end of June.

CD Reviews: Indie Round-Up for May 18 2006 – Zach Hexum, The Animators, Josh Sason

Zach Hexum, The Story So Far

Zack Hexum’s sound harks back to the seventies and eighties (think Paul McCartney, Tears for Fears, and Squeeze) – a keyboard-heavy soft rock with power-pop highlights. Nothing at all like his brother Nick’s band, 311.

But while the sound and sensibility aren’t new, the songs are outstanding, and as I’ve mentioned a gazillion times before, good songs are what it’s all about. The lyrics are both fluid and sharp, often putting a unique slant on common feelings, as in “Simple City”: “I saw a yin yang girl today she was black and white/She was a pile on a chair pale and dark/She wore a shirt that left her breast for all of us to see/I wanna color her and then maybe we’ll be/In Simple City soon/Just staring at the moon/Will you be there?/Can I take you there?” And the melodies are fresh and catchy and quirky all at once.

“All I Want,” “One Spin,” “Sun Still Shines” and “Met a Girl Like You Once” are are among my favorites, but the songwriting shines throughout. Hexum’s voice is a flexible though not amazingly strong instrument; he makes the most of it, singing his intelligent lyrics archly enough to be interesting and emotively enough to be lyrical.

Very highly recommended.

The Animators, How We Fight

The Animators’ sophomore effort is almost like two albums on one CD. The first five songs make up a set of gorgeous power pop. Several of these songs borrow, and sometimes exaggerate, the grunge technique of quiet verses and loud choruses. “It’s Good To Be Here” establishes the pattern, with meaty guitar refrains and the plaintive, sensitive-guy delivery that lead singer Devon Copley is very good at but not restricted to. The section ends with “How Do I Get Over You,” a power ballad that feels to me like the heart of the album and deserves to be a classic.

The rest of the CD is more varied and experimental, starting with the acidic “The Senator Goes To Hell” with its Dixieland tuba and angular honky-tonk piano. The song – about, I’m guessing, Strom Thurmond – pulls no punches: “no matter how deep they bury him, he’s gonna smell/the senator goes to hell.” The circus-y arrangement of “Good Day” would make Brian Wilson proud, while R&B flavored, anti-consumerist call to action “Buy Buy” with its irresistible chorus suggests something Pete Townshend might have written after accidentally wandering into a Wal-Mart.

“Take It So Hard” is a well-written but rather standard relationship song, but the title track gets more creative. Sung in gentle Simon and Garfunkel harmonies the lyrics get deep into the strange subtleties of love and the hardening thereof: “what’s the harm in hiding something/this is how we fight/and how we come together… I don’t mind the tears this time/we’re strong enough that we don’t feel it/we’re smart enough that we don’t mean it/as long as we don’t read between the lines.” “Ordinary Moment” is, lyrically, a straightforward ballad, but musically a fascinating piece of chamber pop. And the last track shows that the Animators can artfully mix a metaphor: “We only know a golden age/On the morning after.”

This is one of those CDs that takes a couple of listens to fully appreciate. Fortunately it also has enough catchiness to draw in the casual pop-music seeker. Check it out.

Available at CD Baby.

Josh Sason, four song demo at

Josh Sason is a promising young singer-songwriter from my “home town” of Long Island NY. As evidenced by these four songs, he’s got a good sense of melody and musical drama. His dense, almost orchestral arrangements show plenty of skill on guitars and keyboards and in the studio (he does everything), and his heated, passionate tenor is just the thing to melt girls’ hearts; his list of inspirations starts with Coldplay, but his phrasing is closer to that of Oasis’s Liam Gallagher. The songwriting needs a little more focus: only the ballad “Your Name” has a strong enough hook to really stick in the ear. But that will come with practice and maturity. Meanwhile this is a kid to watch.

OUT AND ABOUT: It’s been a quiet couple of weeks for me, nightlife-wise, but I’ve been checking out a lot of bands at Myspace. Although it’s not about a band, I just had to share this nugget from Indie Roundup’s Mixed Metaphor Police, who spotted this title on a naked girl’s Myspace blog post: “Christmas is starting to rear it’s [sic] ugly head around the corner again.”

You can’t make this stuff up, folks.

CD Review and Interview: Hillstomp, The Woman That Ended the World

Come hell or high water – and the latter, at least, certainly seems to be on its way – people are never going to tire of music stripped down to essentials. You see this in a number of seemingly disparate styles: thumping dance music in the clubs; two- and three-chord punk at all-ages shows; elemental rock, from Neil Young to Pearl Jam and from “Wild Thing” to its descendent, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”; and, in another realm, the once-again popular ancient musics of Gregorian Chant and Hildegard von Bingen. Simplicity or uniformity of rhythm, melody, or both characterize all these strains, notwithstanding any complexities, hidden or otherwise, that may also adhere.

American folk music, too, has always relied on simple building blocks, but right now there’s a special emphasis on raw, “authentic” sounds and compositions. No band exemplifies this spirit and trend better than Hillstomp, the Portland, OR duo that has just released its second full-length CD. I caught up, electronically, with the band – otherwise known as Henry Kammerer and John Johnson – as they toured California before returning to the Pacific Northwest.

The band, which proudly calls itself “Portland’s third greatest guitar / bucket-n-can duo,” creates a unique sound out of trance blues, hillbilly grit, and an undercurrent of goofiness. With only voices, a guitar, and a “drum” kit made of buckets and other assorted objects – plus, occasionally, a little harmonica and keyboard from friends – they bang out traditional songs like “John Henry,” country blues nuggets by R.L. Burnside and his mentor, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and original songs. Tempo and mood vary but a certain gloomy glee remain fairly constant. Hillstomp’s ragged sound comes out of who they are, but it is also reactive, as percussionist Johnson explains:

It comes naturally to us because those are the elements of blues and country that we like. From a performance standpoint, it comes naturally because it’s really the only way we really know how to play. It’s [also] a reaction, even if unintentional, just because we don’t like the kind of polished and pretty blues and country you’re talking about. For us, blues is all about grit and dirt. It’s not about notes, or technicality or any of that crap. Does it make you want to shout and holler? Does it make you feel a little dirty? These are things it should do. If it makes you say, “Wow, the production on this is impeccable! Mr. Segal’s solo over the bridge on track 3 is really hot,” you should be slapped.

As a reviewer who finds himself saying just such things now and again, I consider myself duly slapped. Kind of like the guy in the cowboy hat on the cover of Hillstomp’s new CD The Woman That Ended the World is about to get slapped if he doesn’t let go of that woman’s arm and let her get on that train. She must have realized she could do a lot better; Hillstomp, on the other hand, hasn’t tampered with its successful formula. The production on the new CD is a little cleaner (*slap* ouch!) but that is of little importance. More significant is that with their single method and limited palette the duo can create enough different musical statements to make two full-length Hillstomp CDs a good listen all the way through.

“Nope,” from their earlier CD One Word, is a sweet love song that contrasts blaringly with the hard scratching of Bukka White‘s “Shake ‘Em On Down.” The stately raga-like solemnity of Burnside’s “Goin’ Down South” leads into the hearty good humor of the band’s own bluegrassy chant “Lucy’s Lament,” vocals grating out through vintage Turner bullet microphones, the kind usually employed to give blues harmonica players their flattened, raucous sound.

On the new CD, in addition to the slightly sharper production, the musicianship has improved. Kammerer’s vocals are a bit stronger and surer and his guitar riffs more varied, while Johnson’s percussion kit technique has expanded. If anything, there was a slight sense of hesitation in the playing on the first CD, which is gone on the new one. But you have to listen closely for these changes; they’re subtle and not critical.

The band also stretches their song structures a little more on the new CD. The easy shuffling beat of “In The Hole” belies a macabre story of a boy who falls in a hole and meets first a rat and then an unexpected fate: “My mother said you live until you die/I never thought my mom would tell a lie/Black rat and me just keep on keepin’ on/We’re dead down here and still singin’ this song.” “Shake It” is a Chicago-bluesy soul jam assisted by David Lipkind on harmonica and Lewi Longmire on Hammond B-3 organ. And “Boom Boom Room East Blues” pounds like a sledgehammer: “I got a woman/She long and she tall/Sleeps in the kitchen/Legs out in the hall… Born as a baby/Into a girl/Became The Woman/That Ended the World.”

Not surprisingly the band got an enthusiastic reception overseas. Audiences in the UK “went apeshit!” Kammerer reports, noting, however, that “they often do that over here [in the US] as well.” But “people in UK are into blues, and into the offshoots of.”

Far from the first rootsy American act to find acclaim across the pond, Hillstomp is planning a more extensive European tour this Fall, after which they’re going to play a few shows in the Midwest and then take some time off from the road. “We’d really like to get back in the basement and start drinking beer and just playing music together for awhile,” says Johnson. “That’s how this thing was born, and we’d like to get back to that for a bit. It would do us some good.”

Johnson evinces a very healthy, realistic attitude towards a music career: “Making a living at this would be great. For me especially, it would be a dream come true. But, we aren’t really willing to do it without regard to consequences, if that makes sense. We don’t want to wake up in five years and realize we don’t have any fun playing this stuff anymore and that we haven’t really lived any kind of life. Hopefully we can find a reasonable balance. This music has longevity in it if we don’t burn it and ourselves out.”

The traditions Hillstomp builds upon certainly do have longevity. Just ask the ghosts of Fred McDowell or Dock Boggs. Or Hildegard von Bingen. And look out for Hillstomp – coming, if you’re lucky, to a stage near you.

Available, with extended clips, at CD Baby.

CD Reviews: Indie Round-Up for May 4 2006 – The Holy Fire, Jeremiah Lockwood, Scott Weis

The Holy Fire, In The Name Of The World

The new EP from The Holy Fire is pure, lively rock with driving rhythms, take-no-prisoners vocals and progressive touches. Each song is a little seismic world of its own, full of sound and fury and signifying something, with lyrics like these: “And kiss me right here with your mouth all sick from/Smoke and beer/As the bombs are going off in the distance/Outside the windows.” Good songwriting, soul-stirring sound, and serious (if sometimes obscure) lyrics wrapped in music that never lacks a sense of fun make this a worthy aspirant to a place on your modern rock shelf.

Jeremiah Lockwood, American Primitive

Jeremiah Lockwood is an avatar of urban Americana. The native New Yorker, who developed both his musicianship and his street cred playing in the subways with a well-known local bluesman called Carolina Slim, takes gritty blues, banjo music, low-fi folk and a honky-tonk drawl and twists these thick roots into the musical equivalent of a Clive Barker horror story – strange, disturbing, and hard to put down. Even the sweet songs, like “Love in the Dungeon,” with Elizabeth Harper on harmony vocals, sound skewed. Lockwood’s nasal, Axl Rose voice, Stuart Bogie’s clangy production, and the unexpected arrangements, which include horns as well as stringed instruments, all contribute to the distorted effect. The rhythms sway and totter as if drunk – “Going to Brooklyn” sounds like it might grind to a halt at any moment. “You Are My Shadow” is Lockwood’s update of “You Are My Sunshine” – it starts like the old chestnut, then wings off into a vortex of odd chord changes. His cover of Jimmy Reed’s “Baby What You Want Me To Do” features a guitar solo and an antic sax that keep threatening to wander into another key. The banjo-blues “The Moon Is Rising” sounds like something Led Zeppelin might have done if they’d taken different drugs, and “Stolen Moments” is Residents-weird.

The CD, on local label Vee-Ron Records, may not be to everyone’s taste, but if anything in the above description appeals to you, it’s surely worth checking out.

Scott Weis Band, Have a Li’l Faith

On the flip side of the blues, The Scott Weis Band crunches in with a new CD of horn-driven Memphis soul and muscular, gravelly blues-rock. Has there been a lack of Joe Cocker in your life lately? How about that guy from The Commitments – whatever happened to him? Pop in this CD and get your fix. Deeply soulful, full of authentic religious feeling and chunky grooves, this is satisfying stuff.

Available at CD Baby.

OUT AND ABOUT: Jefferson Thomas churned out a tight, melodic and altogether impressive set of original, seventies-style soulful rock at Arlene Grocery last night… The St. Cecilia Chorus, which includes singer-songwriter Ari Scott, celebrated a hundred years of musicmaking with sparkling performances of Vaughan Williams’s Dona Nobis Pacem and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony last week. Their legendary conductor since 1965, David Randolph, is still going strong into his nineties… New York City’s equally legendary CBGB is really – really, this time – going to be closing down in a few months. You still have time to catch my band, Whisperado, playing at CB’s Lounge on Saturday, May 13. For you out-of-towners, it’s a perfect opportunity to come and say goodbye to the old dump.

CD Review: Dion, Bronx In Blue

When I played the New York Irish bar circuit in the 80s and 90s doing oldies and classic rock, the songs that went over the best always included some of Dion’s hits, especially “The Wanderer” and “Runaround Sue.” With and without The Belmonts, the Bronx’s Dion DiMucci had a raft of hits from the late 50s to the late 60s. Going beyond doo-wop cliches, the songs were such raw and spirited fun that they’ve remained popular to this day, and in 1989 Dion was inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

So we always knew Dion could write great songs. And we always knew he could sing. But did we know he could sing traditional blues? And did we know he played a mean guitar? No sir, we did not. Introducing Dion, the bluesman. Far from the vanity project one might have feared – especially given the song choices, many of which have iconic versions – the man’s new acoustic blues CD is a joy. Without trying to sound self-conscously authentic, accompanied only by his own acoustic guitars and a percussionist, he tackles hoary standards like “Crossroads,” Who Do You Love,” “Built For Comfort” and “Walkin’ Blues” with skill, gusto and humility. His voice and attitude are clear and strong but also seem wise and experienced. His sense of fun is undiminished, as shown by the double-entendre original “I Let My Baby Do That.”

What this CD shows is that a street poet is a street poet, whether from the Deep South or the Bronx. “Black music, filtered through an Italian neighborhood, comes out with an attitude,” says Dion. “Rock & Roll. The music on this CD was the undercurrent of every song I did… even the foot stomping on ‘Ruby Baby’ I got from John Lee Hooker’s Walkin’ Boogie.'”

The liner notes provide background on each of the selections, so a blues neophyte could get a bit of an education from the package as well. But whether you’re an oldies fan, a blues fan, or both, get this CD because it’s just plain good. (Then play it for your musically knowledgeable friends and make them try to guess who it is.)

CD Review: Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, Way Back

There’s a lot more to Willie “Big Eyes” Smith than his best-known role as the drummer in Muddy Waters’s band. His new CD finds the singer, composer, drummer and harmonica player in fine form at age 70.

Taking front and center on a mix of covers and originals, Smith leads a variety of top cats through a delightful eleven-song set of old-school Chicago blues. With Pinetop Perkins, that nonagenarian national treasure, on piano, and guest appearances by other notables including fellow Muddy Waters alums James Cotton and Bob Margolin, these songs incline mostly towards the joyful side of the blues, which is part of the reason I’ve hardly stopped listening to it since I got it.

Highlights include the Muddy Waters tune “Read Way Back”; Sonny Boy Williamson’s classic “Don’t Start Me Talkin'”; and Smith’s own wryly funny “I Don’t Trust You Man” and Howlin’ Wolf-style one-chorder “Woman’s World.” The beautiful original “Blues and Trouble,” a slow number played with only Margolin’s resonator guitar and Smith’s harp backing up the vocal, is the heart of the CD: “Blues and trouble bother me everywhere I go / Blues and trouble bother me everywhere I go / I’m so stuck in the bottom and can’t see the light no more.” But Smith doesn’t stay down in the dumps for long, picking up the sticks to bang out the backbeat behind guest guitarist Billy Flynn’s composition “I Want You To Love Me.”

Smith plays drums himself on only two tracks; his son Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith more than ably handles skins duty on the rest. In spite of the variety of musicians helping out, the whole CD has the feel of a family affair. For authentic traditional Chicago blues played by some of the best in the business, look no further.

Indie Round-Up for Apr 20 2006: Brandston, Wendt, Mulligan, Martin

Brandtson, Hello, Control

Brandtson has been around for nearly a decade, but somehow I’d missed the whole phenomenon until now. Not knowing the band’s previous work, I can only consider the new CD on its own terms – but there’s nothing wrong with fresh ears. And there’s not much wrong with the CD, either – it’s full of melodic, modern rock with bite, and more hooks per square foot than a velcro dance floor.

The soft-rock opener, “A Thousand Years,” has a Neil Finn-style melody, and the bright “Earthquakes & Sharks” is clever and catchy, if not very original musically, with funny lyrics and supple, close harmonies that evoke Squeeze. Ska-punk-disco makes a fiery appearance in “Denim Iniquity.” “Nobody Dances Anymore” is relentlessly danceable. And so on. A few of the songs in the second half get a bit drony and repetitive, but the whole album is enjoyable, and that’s a rare thing in pop-rock.

Sara Wendt, Here’s Us

Sara Wendt‘s captivating new EP meets the expectations raised by its promotional copy: “rocking yet delicate and nuanced… featuring haunting overtones that make her music both vivid and dreamy.”

“I’ll Be Waiting” is a tense and powerful pop gem. Wendt’s sad and beautiful cover of Homer Erotic’s “King of the Ghosts” has a sun-baked Mediterranean feel, as her keening wail trades riffs with co-producer Ann Klein‘s fuzzed-out guitar. The poetry is like an offspring of Leonard Cohen and Patti Smith, and Wendt’s wrenching delivery squeezes the most out of it.

“Pretty Dark Knight” is a dreamy, Eastern-influenced drone complete with sitar (Klein again). It’s a little like The Doors’ “The End” turned upside down and inside out. An unexpected chord change in the chorus and the crystalline toll of a bell provide all the drama the song needs. The title track is another catchy pop nugget, this time on the Sara McLachlan tip.

The final two songs don’t do much for me, but the opening lines of “Weightless With Love” do give a good idea of the sharp angles of her language: “I can’t make small talk with words that big/With those big words you used on me.” Sara Wendt is an original talent graced with a lovely voice. This is intelligent, variegated music that is perhaps most easily classified as pop-rock, but shouldn’t be shoehorned into any such category.

Melissa Mulligan, Sparrow

Hit machine Melissa Mulligan is back with a new EP featuring her new killer track, the hard-rocking “Objectify Me,” a tongue-in-cheek take on the objectification of women. “I’m getting bored as heck/With all your damn respect/When’s this friendship gonna end?” The rollicking closer, “Laughing (I Dare You)” is a similarly slanted take on love games, all of two minutes and eleven seconds long. In between, Mulligan’s more reflective side appears in the pretty “Nashville,” while the soul-rock churner “Walk Out” shows off her strong Janis Joplin influence. It’s a good song, and more to point, it’s just the kind of thing Janis would have turned into a showstopper; Mulligan stays true to that mode with spirited vocal pyrotechnics. All that it’s missing is the Kozmic Blues horn section.

Todd Martin, Time For Good

There’s a big market for guys like Todd Martin. You hear them on the radio one after another: gentle-voiced, unthreatening balladeers with a sensitive catch in their voice and a touch of rock in their arrangements. But their songs too often have limp melodies and cliche-ridden lyrics.

Martin manages to rise above the sad stereotype at certain points on his new CD. His sweet voice, half Freedy Johnston and half Michael Stipe, is a well-tuned and emotional instrument that gives a soothing quality to the choruses of “Punchline” and “Midas to Minus.” And there are other likeable bits and pieces, like the killer opening riff of “Save Myself” and the dramatic, wall-of-sound build in “This Life.” But on the whole, the earnest vocals, artful production and ace backing band can’t inject enough personality into these unremarkable songs.

Available here.

CD Review: Danielle Howle, Thank You Mark

Like her stage persona, Danielle Howle’s music is authentic and quirky at the same time. Stylistically, she travels to and fro. But with a cock-eyed worldview and a voice that drips with irony, she uses the American songwriter’s standard bag of tools and tricks to blaze, and when necessary cut, her own path.

Her new CD opens with the irresistible “Roses from Leroy’s,” which has an 80s pop-rock vibe. But then suddenly she’s evoking Patsy Cline – and pretty darned well at that – with “I’ll Be Blue.” “Fields of Cotton” has a traditional folk flavor, while “Oh Swear” swings with horns. Produced by Hootie and the Blowfish’s Mark Bryan, the CD also features a wonderful duet with Hootie singer Darius Rucker on the Etta James/Harvey Fuqua classic “If I Can’t Have You” (admittedly, this is a song that would have been tough to screw up).

Howle is a kick-ass live performer, but her unapologetically inexpert vocals may take a little getting used to on record. Yet listen to the ballad “This Kind of Light” and you’ll hear something of the heartwrenching sugar of Bonnie Raitt and a bit of the raw boniness of PJ Harvey combining into a unique and powerful voice – and I don’t mean just the literal voice, but also the figurative “voice” of the storyteller or fiction writer. It’s the storytelling, even more than the delivery, that makes these songs work as well as they do.

“Walking Through the Black,” in spite of not having a super-strong hook, has a soulful force and builds to a big climax, while the torchy “Love is a Fall” is a fine example of Howle’s skill with melody. “Who Knows” shows off the humorous side that’s so evident at her live shows. In fact every song here has a feel that’s quite different from all the others. The CD is charming and never boring. Fans will be pleased, and new fans should be made.

CD Reviews: Indie Round-Up For April 6 2006

Well, it finally happened: an Indie Round-Up where not one of the CDs under review – there are four this week – is available with cover art at Amazon. That means, for those of you reading this on Blogcritics, which is probably 99% of you, an unreferenced CD will be pictured at the head of this article. However, far from being a random pick, the CD pictured has been selected for you using our patented Bagel&Rat Recommendation Engine. So you, yes you, will be sure to enjoy it.

Oh, and for those of you reading this at my own blog, The Bagel and the Rat: Hi, Mom!

Now on to this week’s new stuff:

ANN KLEIN, My Own Backyard

Every so often the busy New York City guitar-slinger Ann Klein releases a CD of her own work. Her recent My Own Backyard is the sweetest and smoothest yet.

The opening track, “Hank Williams,” is a delicious rootsy rocker that reminds me a tiny bit of one of my all-time favorite guitar songs, the Hollies’ “Long Cool Woman.” The bouncy “All That I Had Missed” establishes the CD’s Americana focus as well as Klein’s mastery of country guitar feeling and technique – she plays the regular six-string, the lap steel, the mandolin and the dobro (as well as the bass), all on this one song.

The title track is a beautiful little ballad co-written with Tim Hatfield, who also mixed and co-produced the album.

Klein’s expressive but small voice has been skilfully recorded and set in the mix so that it punches through, and the songs are well crafted, especially those noted above and the juicy Mary Chapin Carpenter-style twang-rocker “You Can Be My Rainy Day.” But Klein’s guitar work is the star; the CD would be a pleasure to hear on the strength of that alone.

In some songs, the whole doesn’t equal the sum of the parts – “Part of the Game” and “There’s a Storm Comin’,” for example, are full of charm and flowing guitars, but have somewhat wilted hooks. Inspired bits like the solo in “Go Back to Chattanooga” and the sparkling harmonies on the chorus of “Love Is Standing By” keep the second half of the CD from losing steam, however.

Good stuff here, on several levels.

Available at CD Baby here.


With their gloomy alt-rock lyrics dressed in shiny power-pop duds, Controlling the Famous sounds more like a cleaned-up Clash than like most of the new rock bands on the scene. With U2-influenced guitar drills and ska-leaning beats, the songs motor through your brain like fast cars speeding along Big Sur.

The straight-up, vibrato-free vocals remind one of Dave Grohl, and although these boys can’t quite match the Foo Fighers’ melodic prowess (few bands can), their best songs are a cut above the norm, in particular the clever, punchy opener “Detox,” the passionate, midtempo “Heart Attack,” the intense “Highway Parking Lot,” and the catchy “Two Sides” which seems like a snappy answer to the No Doubt hit “Hey Baby.”

Automatic City will be available in stores May 16. Meanwhile, you can listen to “Two Sides” at the band’s Myspace page.

JOE ROHAN, These Days

Sometimes there’s nothing better than a dose of good old heartland rock. Cleveland’s Joe Rohan is like a more honey-voiced John Mellencamp with a supple falsetto added. Sharp production makes a polished place-setting for Rohan’s strong tenor voice, and the arrangements feature just enough keyboard licks and crisp funkiness to suggest a blue-eyed, countrified kind of soul – the smooth-as-silk “Cold Winter Day” in particular suggests Lyle Lovett.

The fabulous opener, “Desert Love,” could be a radio hit, and “Lovestruck Romeo” is a good, bluesy number. Rohan’s expert acoustic guitar work is featured on the sweet “James Dean,” but as a song, it, like most of the remainder, is just average, composed of really nice parts but too often (as in “Angeline” and “Pair of Horses”) relying too heavily on melodic cliches. These songs cry out for big hooks that don’t come.

Still, the best tracks on here are excellent indeed. And Rohan includes a frantic, Bad Company-style cover of “Ring of Fire” that’s maybe worth the price of admission all by itself. Finally, stay till the end for the lovely, evocative guitar instrumental called “The Moon.”

KEVIN SO, The Brooklyn Sessions EP

While he works on a new full-length CD, the prolific Kevin So is giving his fans something to tide them over with this low-budget but slick-sounding EP. Four good Kevin So songs are worth more than an hour of music from most artists, and these tracks represent some of his best, maybe even a new peak in his career.

Since his move to New York about three years ago, So has evolved from a hardworking, top-notch folkie to a jazzy neo-soul genius. If he didn’t have an Asian face, would Kevin So be where John Legend is now? Quite possibly. Are Western audiences ready for a literate and sophisticated, but mainstream and accessible, Chinese-American R&B singer-songwriter-guitarist-keyboardist with mesmerizing stage presence, brilliant songs, and godlike cheekbones? If it ain’t, it sure as hell should be.

These new tracks will soon be available online. Until then: Kevin So’s last studio album, a two-disc set, is available here, and his even more recent double live album here.

CD Review: Various Artists, Alligator Records: 35X35

In two senses, it’s pretty hard to believe that Alligator Records, the formerly upstart blues label out of Chicago, has been around for 35 years.

First, Alligator seems – at least to a fortysomething like myself – to have always been with us. What, only 35? Not as old as the blues itself? Not…forever?

And second, it’s remarkable when any independent label survives this long, no matter what its mission. Alligator has done it with a two-pronged strategy: scout and sign new talent, while also picking up seasoned, even legendary artists who, for reasons ranging from fickle audiences to personal demons, have fallen out of the spotlight (at least in the US, the birthplace of the blues) and are due for comebacks.

To celebrate the longevity and devotion that have made Alligator the world’s most successful modern blues label, it has just put out a two-CD collection spotlighting its three and a half decades of releasing some of the best blues (and, occasionally, blues-ish) music money can buy. Founder Bruce Iglauer and his team selected one track from each of 35 artists’ first releases for the label, ranging from Hound Dog Taylor’s Howlin’ Wolf-style, elemental electric blues to Son Seals’s minor-key funked-up variety; from Koko Taylor’s 1975 comeback to Charlie Musselwhite’s in 1990; from Professor Longhair’s last recording in 1980 to the teenage Shemekia Copeland’s first in 1998.

Alligator seems to have been along for almost every musical journey the blues has taken contemporary fans. From Buddy Guy and James Cotton to Johnny Winter and Lonnie Mack, the list of world-famous artists who have recorded for the label goes on and on. It released Corey Harris when he was starting out as a country-blues revivalist, Elvin Bishop when he returned to his blues roots, and Mavis Staples when she sought to bring her soulful gospel message to the public after 9/11. Guitar heroes, fiery belters, harmonica masters, and even C. J. Chenier’s Zydeco have found a home on Alligator, and we’re all the better for it.

You’d be hard put to find a better companion for the second semester of your Blues 101 survey course, should you happen to be teaching one. (You’d need to go elsewhere for the early country styles and other traditional forms with which the blues began.) Alligator has wisely stuck a single-CD price on this chronologically ordered two-disc set, making it but a small investment for those (like most of us) whose music budget makes us hesitate to buy a compilation rather than seeking out just those artists we already know we like the very best. There’s not a dud on here; in spite of the subgenre-hopping, it’s a pleasurable listen straight through. Pick it up if you enjoy but are only glancingly familiar with the blues, or get it for a youngster you know – you might just light a fire under someone that won’t ever be put out.

CD Reviews: Indie Round-Up for Mar 23 2006 – Retrospectro, Waldron, Chevrette


Retrospectro, Anodyne

This Brooklyn band is a real hoot. A curious and original mix of power pop and garage rock, with nasal vocals halfway between Bob Dylan and Lou Reed and a Velvet Underground vibe in songs like “Anna Anna Anna,” Retrospectro represents creative New York City at its snottiest. Backing up their simple yet satisfyingly twisted songs are humming layers of acoustic and electric guitars with an element of trance, along with subtle surf licks and organ chords – familiar parts, with recognizable bits of sixties, seventies and nineties styles, making up an altogether fresh sound.

“Sleepwalking” and “Rapid,” which open the CD, are especially catchy. “Peace and Love” and “Anna Anna Anna” are also very good songs, and I liked the closer, “Take It Or Leave It.” The remaining three are weaker. But there’s a lot to like in any handful of this music.

Listen and buy at CD Baby.

Mala Waldron, Always There

Mala Waldron‘s cool, sophisticated work is just the sort of thing that could nudge jazz closer to the mainstream. With hummable melodies, grown-up but accessible chord changes, and a weave of smooth R&B flavor (especially in songs like the ballad “Because Of You” and the up-tempo “Maybe It’s Not So”), some of these tracks should by all rights find a home anywhere that plays the lightweight likes of Alicia Keys. Yet even the smoothest of these tracks, though eminently CD-101-worthy, are real jazz.

That, and Waldron’s superior keyboard skills, should be no surprise considering she’s the daughter of jazz legend Mal Waldron. One of the elder Waldron’s claims to fame was his association with Billie Holliday, and Waldron fille is a supple, fanciful singer who makes everything sound easy. Jazz vocals generally aren’t my favorite corner of the music universe, but Waldron’s are dead-on in tune, pleasingly shaded, easygoing, neither cloying nor precious.

Waldron wrote all the tracks except one, and it’s clear she has a finely calibrated sense of what kind of material is ideal for her voice, although one gets the feeling she could credibly sing, and certainly play, almost anything. Even the fluffy lyrics aren’t bad – and “not bad” is pretty damn good for jazz lyrics. Finally, her imaginative, funky version of The Doors’ “Light My Fire” demonstrates her ability to make unexpected material her own. If I had to pick a favorite track, it would be the impassioned ballad “Proud Lion,” which Waldron dedicates to her father. “Proud Lion/think he knew deep inside/that I never did like/long goodbyes.” Nothing lightweight about that.

Being such a knockout on both piano and vocals, it’s only fitting Waldron should have ace musicians backing her up, and bassist Miriam Sullivan, guitarist Steve Salerno and drummer Michael “T.A” Thompson are every bit her match. In fact one of the CD’s best points is the organic sound of the band, as if they’d played together for a million years.

Mala Waldron appears at the Jazz Standard in New York City on March 27 for her official CD release, and at Night and Day in Brooklyn NY on June 8 as part of the Soul of the Blues series.

Roberta Chevrette, Miss America

Roberta Chevrette makes a powerful statement with the first two songs on her new CD, Miss America. The instrumental introduction to “Country Girl” establishes her and her band’s bluesgrass credentials. The song itself is a two-chord chant about a girl the singer admires – an older sister or someone in that capacity, who “has this easy/way with words…she’ll tell me little sister/would you quit your worrying/you know you can do/anything that you want” – but then comes the kicker: “and i remember back/to all those years ago/to when she tried to kill me/on the living room floor/with a pair of scissors/in her hand.” Then the song closes with a verse about “going out to the country/where i belong” and a dog in the backseat, “to the country/where we feel/complete.” No more mention of the older girl. It’s like a miniature experimental novel in a few verses.

“Every Wind” is even more powerful, a drony Led Zeppelin-style folk song about a relationship going cold, which is the stuff of millions of songs but expressed with exceptional intensity here. Chevrette’s voice, not little-girlie yet usually small and childlike, soars to anguished heights on the choruses.

In “Miss America” the singer rejects artifical glamour in favor of inner beauty; she doesn’t “want to be demure or lovely/sweet or nice/or sit back quietly/while others think for me.” But then Chevrette goes one step beyond the expected, adding a final line: “i don’t want to be pretty.”

If you’re detecting an Ani DiFranco influence, you’re not imagining it. “Your Words,” in fact, is a poem directed straight at DiFranco, acknowledging a debt. Sounds a little tiresome, I know, but something about Chevrette’s laser-focussed delivery makes it not so. Though the poem swerves into an indictment of Bush’s Iraq war, the political theme is picked up at greater length in the slightly too obvious “Long Long Day.” The minimalist, spoken-word “How Long” is a more effective protest song. And in the midst of it all, the bluegrass romp “Bear Tracks” reminds us that this singer-songwriter isn’t all lasers and ice.

The grim banjo returns in “Anymore,” which features Jefferson Airplane-style harmonies that deepen a plainspoken refrain. “Inside,” like a number of these tracks, is more poem than song, in this case a self-referentially free-associative lyric: “i think i am addicted/to the resonance of chaos…the hectic beauty/of my surroundings/makes me feel/that the world/is the prize.”

This CD takes a couple of listens to appreciate, but it’s well worth it.

Available at CD Baby here.

OUT AND ABOUT: Paul DeCoster (of Bobby Stewart and the Contraires) is turning into a ferocious front man, as evidenced by his show at the Underground Lounge last Saturday night. His mix of 80s pop-rock covers (Eddie Money, Corey Hart) and originals in a similar vein kept the crowd grooving until – well, until they had to quit to make way for a comedy show… Dave Isaacs, up from Nashville, knocked ’em dead at Cornelia Street Cafe last night with his blazing guitar chops and bluesy roots-rock… Last but not least, my own band, Whisperado, plays this Saturday night at Hank’s Saloon (Brooklyn’s infamous “Bucket o’ Blood”) with Coppersonic and The New Heathens. Get there early – the more you’ve drunk, the better we sound!

CD Reviews: Indie Round-Up for Mar 9 2006 – Golay, Rivkin, Rentler

This week’s round-up demonstrates the enormous variety of what we call, for want of a better term, folk music.

Mike Golay, Across the Bridge and Half Pint (solo acoustic guitar)

Fans of the acoustic guitar, get thee to thy record store and pick up one or both of these CDs from six-string master Mike Golay. Virtuosic but not flashy, soothing but not new-age precious or background-music boring (although they’ve been serving as excellent relaxing background music for me in my office), Golay’s pieces express the soul of the often taken-for-granted instrument.

One can hear Hawaiian strains and Celtic touches here and there, and many of the titles are evocative or quirky (“111 Archer Avenue,” “Somewhere I Have Never Travelled,” “Baby With a Hammer”), but overall the music is a-cultural, its language the universal tongue of plucked strings. Some songs are more melodic, others more atmospheric, and Golay will throw in an unexpected bend or chromatic line in places. But there’s not a sour note to be heard.

Though both CDs are thoughtful and the songs varied, the more recent “Across the Bridge” is perhaps the more contemplative of the two. It’s also longer, so if quantity is your goal and your budget allows for only one solo acoustic guitar album, go for that one. If you can’t get enough acoustic guitar, get both. You can sample the tracks at CD Baby (or iTunes, though as yet it has only Half Pint) before you buy.

This style of music doesn’t get a whole lot better. Highly recommended.

Irina Rivkin, upwelling

Although we are in a richly creative time marked by cross-pollination of musical styles and traditions, this CD stands out as something really different. In a mere 36 minutes Irina Rivkin pulls together aesthetic, emotional, political, sexual, and social justice themes into a contiguous and unique artistic statement. Despite the coffee cups in the cover photo, Rivkin’s work is very far from the “lesbian coffeehouse music” that I anticipated. Instead it’s a kind of world-folk spawned from the artist’s Russian folk-music background and acute sensitivity to personal and political injustice, and informed by a crossover-jazz sensibility a la Leonard Bernstein and a mildly experimental bent akin to that of Kate Bush or Meredith Monk.

It’s all that, and it’s pretty to listen to too.

The instrumental accompaniments are light to nonexistent, as Rivkin’s voice is the prime instrument here, bolstered by those of the excellent Maria Quiles and Rebecca Crump (who together with Rivkin comprise the group Making Waves). Rivkin sings her angular melodies in a voice that switches easily from soft to sharp. Where the other voices jump in, the sound becomes more universal and more exotic at the same time: discrete moments could have come as easily from a North American roots-revivalist group like the Be Good Tanyas as from an exotic, arty hitmaker like the Bulgarian Women’s Choir.

Her lyrics, for the most part, manage to be both pointed and poetic. Political music is hard to pull off, especially if it’s not satirical, and, except in “Welfare-to-Work Blues,” which is musically creative and elegant but lyrically forced, Rivkin accomplishes the difficult task very well. “See Through Bush” is clever and light-handed and the more cutting thereby; the Spanish-language “Sobrevivientes” raises a fist of musical beauty against oppression; and the chantlike “Taking Our Freedom” deepens its message with hypnotically intense music while personalizing it with a dollop of family history.

The non-political songs are rewarding too. Rivkin’s reflections on love and its accompanying troubles range from the imagistic (“Little Silver Packets,” “River & Volcano”) to the painfully explicit (the Outmusic Award-winning “Ya Eyo Lublu”), and, unlike most lyricists, who are at home only in one mode or the other, Rivkin can convince with words both clouded and clear.

Russ Rentler, Scarecrow’s Lament

The new disc by Russ Rentler, who was an early bandmate of the folk stars John Gorka and Richard Shindell, is really three CDs in one. First, it boasts three beautiful instumentals: two traditional tunes and an original, in which Rentler’s consummate skill on a wide array of stringed instuments (too many to name, but dulcimers are prominent) takes center stage. Then there are the humorous songs, including “New Car Smell,” which has been heard on the syndicated NPR show Car Talk, and the autobiographical (and hysterical) “One-Eyed Grandma.” Finally there are thoughtful and earnest songs of love, family and the ways of the world.

Rentler’s singing, and to some degree his writing, are throwbacks to the Folk Revival period of the 1950s and ’60s, specifically the plainspoken voices of artists like Oscar Brand, Pete Seeger, and the Kingston Trio, who gave audiences a sincere but somewhat whitewashed refraction of the traditional music of Appalachia and its antecedents in the British Isles. That mode is entirely out of fashion in today’s folk revival, which goes by names like Americana, Alt-Country, and Rick Rubin, and which prizes authenticity, whether native (Ralph Stanley, the Blind Boys of Alabama), studied (Old Crow Medicine Show, Alison Krauss) or transformed (Devendra Banhart). Rentler sings with much heart and little art, but after a couple of songs one gets used to it and goes with his honest and ultimately refreshing sound.

There’s one big problem: clunky lyrics. Rhymes that don’t rhyme, words that stick out awkwardly from their melodies, and references that are just a wee bit off (“those times they’re a-changin'” isn’t exactly what Bob Dylan said) come too frequently to fall under the protection of artistic license.

Fortunately, formal flaws are often forgiveable – and can even have a naïve charm – in funny songs, of which Rentler has several. It’s the more serious lyrics, like the love songs “Waltzing Amelia” and “Moravian Street,” that don’t trip lightly into the ears.

Rentler’s previous CDs are available at the iTunes music store and presumably this one will be too once it’s processed by the great big Apple music chomper, so I’d recommend – unless you’re already a fan – that you listen over there, check out the instrumentals first, and then the rest, before laying out for the CD. I’m lucky enough to have a review copy, but iTunes gives you the choice to download the songs you like. For sure, the instrumentals are going into my iTunes library. Folk revival or not, it’s a brave new world out there for music fans; happy downloading.

Available at CD Baby here.

Various Artists, The Independents

Norine Braun was kind enough to send me a copy of her company’s first compilation, straightforwardly titled The Independents. As with any collection of this type, the quality of the music is uneven, but it’s a well-chosen assortment that flows better than most, opening with three strong tracks: Braun’s own epic-pop number “Alberta,” Dudley Saunders’s literary, electronic-traditional hybrid “Truck of the Rising Sun,” and Maya Solovey’s international pop gem “Dissolving.”

Skinflick does a good job aping the Foo Fighters, while Krescent 4 similarly worships Soundgarden. The UK’s The Papers aim for Neil Finn territory with their catchy pop-rock nugget “Lonely Being Beautiful,” and Anton Glamb’s “Subway” is lighthearted and amusing. Tracy Stark – an in-demand session keyboardist in New York indie circles and beyond – nails a nifty, jazzed-up adult contemporary vibe in “So Cool.” Patti Witten evokes Roseanne Cash’s smooth country-pop-rock style with the lovely, atmospheric “Black Butterfly,” and Salme Dahlstrom’s “Hello California” is crystalline, guilty-pleasure pop.

OUT AND ABOUT: When is a concert a community? When it’s Meg Braun (no relation to Norine Braun) and Sharon Goldman’s fundraiser for the Summersongs non-profit adult songwriters’ camps, with which more and more top-shelf folk musicians are associating. Last night’s concert at Makor in New York City included mini-sets from about a dozen artists, among them the monstrously talented Sloan Wainwright, who writes sophisticated and captivating songs and gives a singers’ clinic every time she opens her mouth; bluesman Scott Ainslie, who held the audience spellbound with his Allman-esque voice and what may be the only song about the Vietnam War ever written for a children’s record; and – she’ll forgive me for this characterization – modern folk’s eminence grise Christine Lavin who had the crowd in stitches as she often does. Spotted in the crowd were other tour-circuit stalwarts like serious funnyman Eric Schwartz and jazz-pop original Allison Tartalia… Speaking of Allison, she’ll be performing tonight when my Soul of the Blues series continues at Night and Day in Brooklyn, along with Ian Thomas ( “Best Nostalgia-Free Revival Act of 2005,” NY Press) and Adam Payne whose soulful “sound is as big as his afro.” If you’re in the NYC area tonight, it’s a show – and a mural – not to be missed.

Indie Round-Up for Feb 23 2006: Beautiful Girls, Gordone, Kurdian

I just scored myself some tickets to Cate Blanchett in Hedda Gabler at BAM, so I’m in a great mood. Let’s just get started, then. I’ve got three good indie CDs to tell you about this week.

The Beautiful Girls, We’re Already Gone

Perhaps one of the best eclectic acts to come along since Beck, The Beautiful Girls are at home with dub, reggae, blues-rock, lo-fi pop and roots. It isn’t the individual songs but the sum total that makes this Australian band so interesting and potentially important. Guitarist and principal songwriter Mat McHugh sings with wry circumspection, and there’s no fancy production; the songs are arranged and played with elemental rather than mechanical precision, like basic reggae. When the sound gets big, as in the rave-up at the end of “The Biggest Lie I Ever Told,” the effect is mighty; throughout, the band skilfully employs layering and dynamics to get the most possible impact from simple forms.

Plus you can dance to it.

Despite the band’s somewhat self-consciously modern sound, there’s very little “how cool are we!” attitude; these guys have internalized many styles, but their synthesis seems to come very naturally. End result: subtle, twenty-first-century eclectic-pop gold.

Leah-Carla Gordone, Dancing On The Dragon

Leah-Carla Gordone has matured appreciably since her last album, Butterfly Child. Stylistically, her r&b-flavored folk-rock puts one in mind of Melissa Etheridge (minus the off-key singing) crossed with Gwen Stefani (minus the pandering to the male libido). But Gordone holds forth in a husky baritone like Nina Simone’s, backed up with her own acoustic and twelve-string guitars and some highly funky support musicians, notably Mike Unger on electric guitar, violinist Yiling Tien, and a crack rhythm section.

No longer dependent on peace-and-love homilies, Gordone’s lyrics mingle hopeful idealism (“Can we get it back to how it used to be/When everything was pure and free”) with relationship realpolitik: “When you open up and let someone in/It’s like peeling back a layer of your skin/And it hurts at first but then you grow to like it/That is when the tragedy begins.” Melodies flow, harmonies soar, and choruses glitter. Gordone remains an earnest, serious and consciously inspirational singer-songwriter, but the style and art of her songs, and her production of them, now make a fine match with her lyrical themes, with hooks that are organic to the songs and also strong in pop sensibility: “This Moment,” “Get It Back,” and “The Dragon” are especially good examples of Gordone’s ability to come up with tunes both meaningful and catchy.

Melineh Kurdian, From Where You Are

Folk-rocker Melineh Kurdian takes inspiration from the Indigo Girls and Ani DiFranco as well as the traditions of American roots music. Nothing unusual there; umpteen folk-rockers meet that description. What sets Kurdian apart is the sheer beauty of her songs and of the voice that brings them to life, a voice with a measure of Patty Griffin’s ability to wrench the heart. “Santa Maria” almost knocks you over with loveliness; “Devil’s Child” is a poignant, almost achingly generous response to intolerance.

On the technical side, Kurdian’s own superior guitar skills seem to have inspired the supporting musicians – including lead guitarists Rob Endicott (a name new to me) and Ann Klein (who’s played with just about everyone) to excellent work.

Klein’s leads fire up “Cowgirl Love Song,” whose lyrics neatly capture life’s biggest dilemma with a musical metaphor: “That’s a tough chord, that’s a hard question to play/That’s a lot of love that you shove in my direction every day.” “Goddamn n’ Just Do” is a muscular take on the “Hit the Road, Jack” theme: “I am the unexpected man that can, I am a wild woman you don’t know could/I am what you could and should but won’t ’cause you won’t follow through… So, pack your heartache, put away your bellyache/Goddamn and Just Do.” Put that in your pipe and smoke it, [insert teenage pop moppet here].

What Kurdian doesn’t have are big hooks. That’s no fatal flaw in music with this rare combination of airy beauty and earthy grace, but it’s the one thing (other than dumb luck and the unfairness of the world) that could keep Kurdian from reaching the level of folk-rock royalty like the Indigo Girls and Shawn Colvin.

Catch her at Invasion of the GoGirls at South by Southwest in March. Buy the CD at CD Baby here.

CD Review: Jessi Colter, Out of the Ashes

Jessi Colter released her first solo album in 1970, shortly after her marriage to Waylon Jennings, but except for a couple of children’s releases, she hasn’t been heard from in over two decades. Yet her new Don Was-produced CD is every bit as vital as her early self-penned successes, like “Storms Never Last” and the 1975 hit “I’m Not Lisa.”

As the first release after the death of an iconic loved one – Jennings died in 2002 – Out of the Ashes bears comparison to Roseanne Cash’s powerful and elegiac Black Cadillac, but Colter’s voice, though supple, bears the honorable stamp of age and weather. In the hypnotic title track, which alone is worth the price of the CD, Colter’s voice fades in and out among fussy piano arpeggios – typical of the casual, slightly messy production. She does the same thing in the Patsy Cline-like “You Took Me By Surprise,” keeping her voice low, J.J. Cale style, among the rocking piano chords, forcing the listener to lean in to hear. The song’s mix of old-style Country & Western with turn-of-the-21st-century alt-country (cf. the Be Good Tanyas) shows us two things: there’s nothing new under the sun, and the sun should shine brightly on Jessi Colter’s comeback.

The elder Jennings’s voice (son Shooter also appears on the CD) emerges from the past on a duet of the Tony Joe White classic “Out of the Rain.” This slightly off-kilter but moving treatment can stand proudly with those by Joe Cocker and Etta James. The gentle, artsy “So Many Things” is a small glowing treasure. Colter gets down and bluesy in “You Can Pick ‘Em” and “Velvet & Steel,” devotional in the opening and closing hymns, playful in her cover of Bob Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” and back to country music basics with “Never Got Over You,” a duet co-written with Ray Herndon. The CD is a consistently sparkling constellation of American roots music.

With Rosanne Cash’s latest, knowing the backstory is an aid to appreciating the music. But Jessi Colter’s new CD, though it has a melancholy tone that suggests loss, demands no knowledge of specific lives. Its pure, raw, deeply human music is full of sweetness but entirely saccharine-free.

And The Crowd Goes Wild!

Our new Whisperado EP, Some Other Place, has received a couple of really nice mentions in the blogosphere. [Is that still what it’s called? The blogosphere? I often find myself fallen several days, weeks even, behind the times in virtual circles. Must be all the time I spend reading those old-fashioned “books.”]

“The musicianship is excellent and varied and the songwriting solid. It doesn’t waste time with homage to the American roots music tradition. It just goes about adding to it. ‘Some Other Place’ is the kind of song Greg Brown might write if he weren’t annoying as shit.” – Jim Henley (Read the whole review here.)

[Note: opinions expressed are those of the writer quoted, not of Bagel & Rat. We think Greg Brown has a great voice, and we like his song “Your Town Now,” but, as we don’t know his music very well otherwise, we have no opinion or knowledge of his qualities, annoying or pleasant.]

“I could mention here, again, that it rocks. Or that the song “Black and Blue” works equally well whether or not you take the ass-kicking metaphorically. Or that if I were writing a story and wanted a great name and location for an indie-rock record label, I only wish I could come up with something as good as ‘Bagel & Rat Records’ on Flatbush Avenue.

“But I’ll skip all that and just tell you to get yourself a copy and hear for yourself.” – Slacktivist

So, if you ain’t got your copy yet, what are you waiting for?

Indie Round-Up for Feb 9 2006: Indiegrrl-apalooza

It’s been a busy couple of weeks here at the Indie Corral. Thanks in part to a fresh announcement on the Indiegrrl list, my CD pile is thick with submissions from female artists, hence the female face of this week’s Round-Up.

Susan Kane, So Long

This lovely set of hummable country-folk, beautifully produced by Billy Masters (Suzanne Vega’s guitarist), has been getting some airplay on prestigious folk programs, and deservedly so. Kane has a sweetly unassuming but clear and sure voice, a good command of American idioms from country-western to blues to coffeehouse folk, a knack for homespun melodies, and an ace collaborator in Masters, whose guitar work and production nests the songs perfectly.

Kane sings folk with a country-singer’s voice, merging the pure beauty of an Erica Smith with the worldliness of a Joni Mitchell. As with Linda Nuñez (see below), if you like this style of music, you will probably enjoy this strong album through and through.

I have one quibble. Although lyrics, as a consequence of their dependence on a musical setting, generally sound better sung than they read upon the page, Kane’s, curiously, go the opposite way. The simple, rather formal beauty of the song structures and melodies seem to contrast with the natural, tumbling quality of the storytelling, resulting – to this ear, anyway – in moments of diminished artfulness.

That aside, this is a fine disc worthy of a place on your folk shelf. Kane and Masters are also a pleasure to hear live, as I learned at a recent show at NYC’s Rockwood Music Hall.

Nuñez, Cry Mercy

Linda Nuñez and her band make unabashed power-rock. Inspired as much by 70’s icons Pat Benatar and Heart as by 90’s alternative bands like Live and Soundgarden, Nuñez sings in an unstoppable belt that’s very refreshing in this age of little-girl voices. And it’s not just her singing style and ballsy harmonies that evoke 70’s arena rock, it’s also her dramatic, sometimes deliciously over-the-top songwriting. A touch of Latin flavor (as in “Havana”), a soft underbelly (“Either Way”) and a proud but not heavy-handed gay identification give this artist plenty of crossover juice, too.

The best songs are up front: “Cry Mercy” is a monster jam, and it’s hard to get the chorus of “Love In Pieces” out of your head once you’ve heard it. “Yea” is a headbanger’s delight that Beavis and Butthead would surely have labeled cool, and “That’s Where I Went Wrong” is a solid power-pop anthem. The songs on the second half of the CD have less hit potential, but the power never lets up, and if you like one Nuñez song, you’ll probably like the whole album. It has depth, and it rocks: two for two in my book.

Patricia Ossowski, What Would You Believe?

This is keyboard-based precision-pop with sophisticated production, lush soundscapes, and powerful lyrics: “while you here always looking for a miracle while i just slowly drown/and you here always saying i’m beautiful but i just can’t be found.” Some of the songs, like “Luminous” and “Please Don’t Go,” have memorable hooks; some rock (“Lucky Me,” “Broken Me”); and many have haunting harmonies and evoke truly chilling moods. The songs are about relationships mostly, but Ossowski has her own poetic and pithy way of looking at things, as in “Broken Me”: “i try to find a reason try to live through all argument/weigh the damage in both hands and i start to miss you/i turn around through your eyes see the view from here/what a wreck i appear to be and i start to miss you.”

But Ossowski has a hard time matching her vocals to her passionate lyrics and dramatic arrangements. Soft, precise singing has its place; it can have the effect of turning a single word or phrase, or a very compressed little melody, into a valid hook, as it does here in “Lucky Me” and “Please Don’t Go.” But Ossowski lacks the vocal range and power that allows a Grace Slick or a Tori Amos to make the most of their quietly intense moments. Perhaps that’s part of why “Lucky Me” stands out on this CD – its tight vocal harmonies and machine-like beat reinforce each other like strands of a rope.

Cantrell Maryott, Moving, Not Leaving

Cantrell Maryott also sings in a controlled style, but with more variation. The opening track, “Do You Remember,” shows that she can sing and write a bluesy torch song with the best of them, whild its solo section proves Mitzi Cowell a masterful guitarist and Philippe Pfeiffer (Maryott’s primary co-writer) a pianist of exquisite skill and taste. (It’s nice to get a CD that sounds this good from a part of the Universe I’m totally unfamiliar with – Ashland, OR – filled with wonderful performances by musicians whose names are totally new to me.)

Maryott is originally from Arizona, and there’s something of the desert in her spacious songwriting. “Do You Remember” is the only torchy track; it leads into “Carry On,” a lovely folk-gospel tune with angelic harmonies, and “Amelie,” a wee folk ballad which, except for Maryott’s use of vibrato on the vocals, wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack. However, the song bears some of the New Age coloring that characterizes most of the rest of the CD, which is thereby less varied and somewhat less interesting.

“Three Miles Into New Mexico” is an exception: a minor-key, mid-tempo country-western tune with a solid chorus, it really gets the toes tapping. But “Long Way Home,” despite fine country-style acoustic guitar playing, has a vocal that’s too gently sing-songy for my taste. I do grow to like the song more as it extends and becomes hypnotic a la Brian Eno ambient rock, but can’t say the same for “Forever” and “Home” which are just plain too New-Agey for my taste.

The CD closes with the chant-like “On This Morning,” a solstice ritual with Pink Floyd electric guitar and what Maryott calls “chanteling”: “harmonizing vocally within acoustically charged spaces to ‘channel the chant.'” I call it pretty, like a ghost in the finery of another age.

In all, despite losing me in places, this CD is the work of accomplished musicians and has much to recommend it.

Available at CD Baby here.

NEWS AND FOLLOW-UPS: Lee Rocker’s new CD has started out as the #1 Most Added on the Americana Music Chart, beating out Shawn Mullins and Roseanne Cash… For you New Yorkers and Brooklynites, my Soul of the Blues series continues tonight at Night and Day with a stellar lineup of local and regional favorites… And finally, speaking of Brooklyn: thanks to the ravages of time and an errant broom, Planty is dead. Poor Planty – he was indeed a strange plant in a strange land.

CD and Concert Review: Rosanne Cash, Black Cadillac

Here are the top ten things I learned from attending Rosanne Cash’s CD release party in NYC last night and then listening to the new CD:

10. The major labels may be hurting for cash, but not for Rosanne Cash. For her, only real, velvety-crimson roses will do.

9. For sheer songwriting excellence, I’m still partial to 1996’s 10 Song Demo, but as an integral work, the new CD is Cash’s best to date. Dense with emotion, it’s about mortality and loss, but not morbid, and mercifully free of facile invocations of faith. (God may be “in the roses/the petals and the thorns” but “It’s a strange new world we live in/Where the church leads you to hell.”)

8. Despite the heavy doses of contemplation and brooding in the new songs, Cash still rocks. Witness the taut title track, the smooth, chocolately rockabilly of “Radio Operator,” and the angst-ridden “Dreams Are Not My Home.”

7. For the musicians out there: Cash’s flair for minor keys is as forceful as ever; so is her trick of ending a phrase with the dramatic two-chord instead of the more usual five-chord.

6. Cash’s honeyed, heartbreaking alto can loosen up even a room full of jaded music-industry insiders. On stage she’s magnetic and glowing.

5. One can’t help but admire the grace and humility with which she accepts and uses both the talent she inherited and the long shadow that comes with it.

4. Even in the hyper-selfconscious 21st century, a “concept album” can be a good idea. Black Cadillac is perhaps more accurately described as a theme album. The songs stand alone but all are auto- or superautobiographical, dealing with present feeling and with history of past generations both known and only known of. The beautiful “House On The Lake” is a crystal-clear paean to simpler times, perhaps of childhood; “Radio Operator” evokes Johnny Cash’s life during wartime; and “Good Intent” concerns the arrival in America of the singer’s ancestors centuries ago.

3. Trying to separate the work from the life is, in this case, futile and unnecessary. These songs speak to the deep and conflicting feelings about family and loss that are part of the universal human condition. Knowing they’re inspired by people whose lives belonged more to the world than to their own families makes them, if anything, more touching and powerful.

2. I like gin.

1. And the number one thing I learned from Rosanne Cash’s CD release party:

Even a musical royal gets nervous when her voice coach is in the audience.