CD Review: Helion Magister, Vaquero

Some music is just music. Whether it’s good, bad, or somewhere in between; interesting or boring; derivative or original, it’s just music. You listen; you like it, or not; if you do, maybe you listen again.

Then there’s that other kind of music, the kind that’s like the tip of an iceberg, or the nose of a starship emerging slowly from another dimension, or a feature film censored and watched on a black and white TV. Music with baggage. Music with a long tail like a comet.

Helion Magister is a new appellation for Michael Miner, who was an original member of the seminal San Francisco band The Great Society. Remembered today mainly for being the band Grace Slick left to join Jefferson Airplane (though the story was more complicated than that), The Great Society lasted but a year. It did, however, make some influential recordings, now rarities, which included – alongside the original version of Darby Slick’s classic “Someone to Love” – songs credited to one “D Minor,” the artist now known as Helion Magister (and Bullman Atavar Crowe and several other things).

Helion Magister has emerged after many decades with a new home-recorded CD on which he re-makes a couple of Great Society songs, adds some others in the same psychedelic rock vein (whether they’re new or have been knocking around for some time, no one knows) and branches out into the nuttier side of spoken-word noise-rock.

With the opening bars of the title track you know right where you are: back in 1966 San Francisco, tripping your brains out. A bluesy bass line, guitars twirling like spaghetti, tinkling hi-hat, and what sounds like a whip drive the incantatory vocals. “Daydream Nightmare Love” and “That’s How It Is” are re-imagined but recognizable versions of Great Society songs that in those days inclined towards Sonny-and-Cher pop – but don’t any more. In the former, vocal tradeoffs and tight harmonies evoke a sound familiar to fans of Jefferson Airplane, and a slightly loopy guitar solo boasts a playfulness evocative of Big Brother and the Holding Company’s Sam Andrew and James Gurley.

“Chick-A-Boom Baby” is driven by gutty bass, clanging guitar, banjo, and smokehouse harmonica (all played by Miner). It’s eight minutes long, with the structure of a song – lyrics, verses, and so on – but it fits no genre, nor does it need to. In this song it’s possible to forget the long tail, the baggage, the history. It’s just pure crazy original fun.

The Tejano-bluesy “Rock And Roll Is” closes out the psychedelic-rock section of the CD with Miner cawing “Rock and roll can still relieve your sorrow,” proving his own point. (Hey, it’s relieving my sorrow even now!) It sounds like Los Lobos if their instruments got wet and started shorting out but they kept playing.

Then come three songs that comprise a noise-rock sonata full of goofy raps, screeching sounds and funny voices: Spongebob Squarepants meets Captain Beefheart in a bowl of Green Jelly. There’s seems to be some kind of story about a highly disturbed married couple running through the three songs, but who cares when the third movement is called “Jello Butt.” The CD closes with a slow, entirely unclassifiable nine-minute opus mixing Jacques Brel, flamenco, Steve Hackett and some rather impressive multi-part madrigal singing.

Short but representative clips of all the songs are available at the Helion Magister website. If you are a fan of psychedelic music, or stuff that’s just “out there,” or what Miner curiously refers to as “good old rock and roll” – it’s worth a click.

And leave your baggage at home.

[Cross-posted at Blogcritics]

Blogcritics Reaches Milestone: 10,000,000 Unique Visitors

It’s insufferably hot here in NYC – because of global warming I suppose – but no major hurricanes have hit us – yet. And while the atmosphere cooks, so does the blogosphere: I’m happy to be a writer for a blog that just received its ten millionth unique visitor. Congratulations to Eric Olsen, the editors, and the Blogcritics writers.

In music news, the Soul of the Blues Festival is over, and it was an overall big success. Not that anyone wore overalls, but you get the picture.

Meanwhile, in Fort Greene, a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of Brooklyn, the recent opening of a “sex shop” on a busy commercial street left fans of rejoicing but also prompted this objection from an area resident: “To have what most people would associate with pornography right out there along with the basic services, it alarms them.” [Source: The Brooklyn Papers, July 23, 2005] That may be the worst objection to pornography I’ve ever heard. Porn may be all sorts of bad things, but for much of America, it’s nothing if not a “basic service,” find out here now the kind of porn Americans watch daily. There are millions of people across the world sitting at their computers accessing porn on websites such as Nu Bay but it is done so behind closed doors, it’s still a taboo subject even though it’s such a common past time.

There are also some adult porn websites that sound like they have child pornography images and videos on them because of what they are called, sites like, but these sites are 100% legal and only contain images and videos of adults.

And in the New York City suburb of Rye, at the famous Rye Playland amusement park, a little boy was murdered by gnomes and trolls. So don’t let anyone tell you monsters aren’t real.

Soul of the Blues Festival

The Soul of the Blues Summer Festival is going extremely well. We’ve had three nights in a row of great music with enthusiastic audiences who are spending money – and we’re only just now getting to the weekend.

Props go to the Downstate New York Blues Assocation for not only hooking us up with some of Long Island’s best blues acts, but arranging for them to come and play our Festival even though we aren’t able to offer them a guarantee. Many of these highly accomplished regional acts rarely play in New York City for precisely the reason that clubs here can’t or won’t pay the talent except with a cut of the door. That’s just the way things are, and as a result, there’s a lot less blues in the greatest city in the world than there should be.

Our home for Soul of the Blues, Cornelia Street Cafe, is an ususually supportive venue for the arts. We appreciate – among other things – their toleration of music that gets a little rowdier (i.e. louder) and goes a little later than they’re used to. Long live the Soul of the Blues!

Details on this weekend’s Festival shows are here.

CD Review: Corey Harris, Daily Bread

Corey Harris has that rare ability to sound like himself and always at home no matter what musical veins he’s tapping. His spiritual-musical journeys to Africa, explorations of Caribbean styles, and American blues and soul roots all contribute to the smooth pleasures of his new CD.

It’s possible to appreciate this collection on two levels. You can listen for Harris’s scholarship (he was featured prominently in Martin Scorsese’s PBS series “The Blues” in 2003), observe his absorption and re-transmission of musical styles from all over the African Diaspora, identify the different roots – or you can just let it move and groove you. It may take a listen or two for the second approach to work, but Harris’s unprepossessing vocals and straightforward yet slinky songwriting run through the whole effort like ice in coffee, making it easy to adjust quickly to his wide-ranging palette.

The CD is heavy on reggae and ska jams, which are made extra sweet by Harris’s subtly artful arrangements and masterful variety of guitar sounds. But the soulful, down-and-dirty “A Nickel and a Nail” and the funny, Mali-inspired “Mami Wata” are more unusual and memorable. The snappy instrumental “Khaira” and langourous, vaguely Afropop-ish “Big String” are also stirring, in very different ways: even when Harris sings of lost love, terror or war, his melodies and music keep to a life-affirming mode. Only in the true love songs “The Sweetest Fruit” and “More Precious Than Gold” does his deft touch lose the faint, warm tension that makes most of this music so satisfying.

“The Bush Is Burning,” as you might guess from the title, raises the specter of terrorism and sharply condemns the Iraq war, but it’s the only overt political statement on the album. Elsewhere Harris hews to more spiritual or personal lines. He visits the blues tradition with “The Peach,” abetted by jazzman-turned-griot Olu Dara, who also adds some laid-back trumpet to two other tracks. The other contributing musicians are very good as well, most notably the percussionist Harry Dennis, Jr.

Recommended for fans of real soul music, “world music,” reggae, and most anyone who likes to groove.

[Cross-posted at Blogcritics]

CD Review: Bobby Purify, Better To Have It

More than one man has worn the moniker “Bobby Purify” since the southern soul duo James and Bobby Purify – best known for its smash hit “I’m Your Puppet” – began its career in the mid-1960s. Though singer-guitarist Ben Moore wasn’t on board at the start, he’s been Bobby Purify for the past three and a half decades, and has now come out of retirement with an excellent new CD under the Bobby Purify name.

Produced by Dan Penn, the set consists of original songs composed mostly by the team of Penn, Carson Whitsett and Hoy “Bucky” Lindsey, laid down by Muscle Shoals luminaries including keyboardist Spooner Oldham and guitarist Jimmie Johnson, and sung with tender, good-natured soulfulness by Moore, who’s lost none of his smoky vocal lustre and gift for lyrical interpretation. From the gospel organ at the start of the title track to the Al Green-style “Things Happen” and the achy defiance of the Moore-penned “What’s Old To You,” the CD proves that old-style soul music lives on beyond the realm of nostalgia.

Purify and the writing team are adept at love ballads (“Forever Changed”) and social commentary (“Nobody’s Home”). The funkified “Somebody’s Gotta Do It” and the heartbreaker “Hate To See You Go” are also solid. And “The Pond” is a hilarious dog-eat-dog tale that reminds me of something Leon Russell might have come up with.

This CD is an enjoyable listen through and through, with plenty of well-crafted “songs of experience” and the rich, warm, classically soulful vocals you’d expect from Bobby Purify, who belongs in the pantheon of great southern soul singers. I’ll let Jerry Wexler (from his liner notes) have the last word: “Mr. Purify, along with his gospel and blues qualities, has that touch of the South and that pinch of country that puts him in the great lineage of the down-home r&b singers from below the Mason-Dixon line: the Arthur Alexanders, the Joe Simons, the Percy Sledges, the Clarence Carters – and yes, dare I say it, the Otis Reddings.”

NOTE: While the many comebacks, reissues and new soul music releases of the past couple of years may not constitute a full-fledged soul revival, they make it clear that the music is still here and ain’t goin’ nowhere. And that’s more than fine by me. The following are links to my recent articles on some other notable examples:

Janis Joplin
Victor Wooten
The O’Jays
Willie Hightower
W. C. Clark
Keb’ Mo’
Richard “Groove” Holmes
Gail Ann Dorsey

And allow me to plug the the upcoming SOUL OF THE BLUES SUMMER FESTIVAL in NYC, July 26-31, 2005, which I have organized with the help of the Downstate NY Blues Association. Readers in the area, please come by – I’d love to meet you.

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]

CD Review: Janis Joplin, Pearl: Legacy Edition

Pearl was Janis Joplin’s final, and sadly posthumous, studio release. As the album was being recorded in the Fall of 1970, several signs pointed to a positive turnaround in Janis’s life. She had cleaned up her drug habits at least partially, assembled a band (the Full Tilt Boogie Band) exactly to her liking, and begun moving in a new, mature musical direction all her own. She had also finally found a producer, Paul Rothchild, who – as road manager John Cooke describes it in his liner notes to the new Pearl – Legacy Edition – “was unlike any producer she had worked with before… working with him was the best experience of her recording career.”

Plenty has been written about Pearl and I wouldn’t venture to have anything significantly new to say. I’ll just mention that if you haven’t listened to Janis for some time, it’s worth revisiting her last studio album. There will always be some die-hards who think Janis never should have left Big Brother, and there will always be those whose favorite album is I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama, but the fact is, for as long as she lived Janis was always a work in progress. Maybe she always would have been. Pearl represented the summit of her self-creation to that point, and it was the only studio album she truly enjoyed making.

The bonus tracks here include the fascinating demo version of “Me And Bobby McGee” from the Columbia/Legacy Janis release, where you can hear the artist in the process of developing the vocal parts she burned permanently into popular culture just over a month later with the studio recording that ended up on the album. There’s also an alternate version of “Cry Baby” with a longer, goofier rap than the album track – it’s not as tight, but shows that good times were being had in the studio. A previously unreleased alternate take of “My Baby” seems incomplete without the final version’s backing vocals but it is interesting to hear a work in progress almost ready to be served. There’s also an instrumental called “Pearl” which the band recorded after Janis died. This has never before been issued, and it’s a beautiful and poignant tribute.

The fruit of Janis’s successful collaboration with Rothchild and the new band is evident on the album, but the live feel captured on Pearl was, necessarily, not an exact match to the band’s sound in concert. The recent release of a film of the Festival Express tour, in which Janis (with Full Tilt Boogie), the Grateful Dead, The Band, Buddy Guy and others travelled together by train across Canada in June-July 1970, stopping for several concerts, provided some excellent documentary evidence of Janis’s musical development during her last year on the planet. Now, with the two-disc Legacy Edition, a full collection of live Festival Express recordings is readily available. Together with Pearl itself and the bonus studio tracks, the Festival Express recordings comprise a worthy document of the tragically brief, explosive final phase in the career of a singer who was so ahead of her time we may never catch up.

About half the Festival Express tracks on Disc 2 haven’t been released before. The rest have appeared on various live collections over the years. They’re a little tinny-sounding overall, but the band’s energy and prowess is evident, the quality of the vocals satisfyingly warm and close. The present release is valuable both for the new tracks and for having them all collected in one place in a sensible sequence, giving a better picture of a Full Tilt Boogie Band concert than has been previously available.

The frenetically fast “Tell Mama” is a testament to the band’s chops, but also includes a Janis rap that takes the audience up, down, sideways and everywhere in between. Whatever drugs the musicians were taking that made them play that fast didn’t interfere with Janis’s virtuoso ability to play the audience like an instrument.

“Half Moon,” from the same Toronto show, also gets the speed-demon treatment, but ends with a spacy, jazzy twist. Like The Band, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and other top bands of the time, Full Tilt Boogie succeeded (as its predecessor, the Kozmic Blues Band, didn’t) in solidifying as a group, melding top-notch musicianship with a loose but controlled energy that matched Janis’s.

“Move Over” and “Maybe” got straightforward treatments at the Calgary and Winnipeg concerts respectively, and the previously unreleased “Summertime” from Winnipeg is masterful in its way, though only loosely rooted in Sam Andrew’s innovative Big Brother arrangement. Janis’s vocals here show her own mature, serious, intensely focused, innovative spirit. Always famous for taking existing songs and making them uniquely her own, Janis with the Full Tilt Boogie Band not only put her own stamp on these compositions but made them into masterpieces of originality, no longer needing the crutch of her old Big Brother and the Holding Company bandmates, who had matched Janis in exploratory spirit but not in charismatic genius. Full Tilt Boogie, by contrast, was entirely Janis’s vision – this band did exactly and only what she wanted. And with them Janis took rock and blues and soul to places only she could have imagined.

Janis’s version of “Little Girl Blue” is so much her own it’s practically unrecognizable, but that’s well known from the studio version. “That’s Rock ‘N Roll,” a propulsive but unremarkable jam showing off the band, leads into “Try,” where, in talking to the audience, Janis sounds stoned or drunk; then she slurs powerfully (a contradiction in terms for anyone but Janis) through an anthemic rendition – already known to fans from the Janis Joplin in Concert album – of her signature compostion, “Kozmic Blues.”

I’ve never liked Janis’s later renditions of “Piece of My Heart.” She and the band rush through this one as if it were just a tired hit – and perhaps that’s how it seemed to them, a song from an earlier era played only to please fans. (Compare it to Big Brother’s eye-opening version on Live at Winterland ’68, when the song was exciting to the band and new to the audience.) During this “Piece of My Heart” from two years later, even Janis’s singing seems tired.

Clearly, that perfunctory concert closer was going to be followed by some hellacious encores. An extended version of “Cry Baby” was the first. Initially sounding exhausted and flat, Janis nevertheless clearly had her heart in this performance, especially in the long central rap, where she wrapped her blues-mama sermon-blanket over the audience. “Get It While You Can” and “Ball and Chain” made suitably titanic final encores. During the latter, Janis preached a message which it helps to bear in mind when we listen to this work from her last blast and wish she’d lived to sing another day. “Tomorrow never happens,” she tells us. “It’s all the same f*cking day, man.”

That goes for yesterday, too.

[Cross-posted at Blogcritics]

CD Review: Bobby Pinson, Man Like Me

There aren’t too many things more American than a set of songs delivered in a country-western twang, with hard-edged guitars, a dose of Jesus, and lyrics about cars and growing up. That’s Bobby Pinson‘s recipe, and projected through his gutsy songwriting and soaring, slightly unpolished baritone, it’s a winning combination.

Unlike a lot of Nashville “product,” Pinson’s new, self-penned CD feels uncompromised. Take out the twang and a lot of this material would be right at home on a John Mellencamp album, but that doesn’t make it any less authentically “country.” The songs are sentimental but (almost) never cloying, with classic melodies, well-crafted lyrics full of life lessons and Springsteenesque storytelling, and a thrumming country-rock kick. The first single, “Don’t Ask Me How I Know,” is a witty example of a “list” song, its funny and poignant items pregnant with vivid experience that develop from the humorous to the touchingly sad:

Don’t ride your bike off a ramp that’s more than three bricks high
Don’t take that candy from the store if you ain’t got the dime
Don’t pick a fight with the little guy that doesn’t talk that much…
Don’t ask me how I know…
Don’t rush off the phone when your momma calls
You ain’t that busy
You ought to make that drive to say goodbye
To your grandpa before he goes
Don’t ask me how I know

Complete with a guitar riff that echoes Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer” and a climactic minor chord, “Don’t Ask Me” could become a classic.

The title track is a more contemplative expression of the life-lessons theme:

Let your buddy leave a party
And don’t ask him for his keys
Rest that casket on the shoulder where your best friend used to lean…
That’s how you make a boy become
More than just his father’s son.

But this honky-tonk Polonius is more than an everyman-preacher. Other highlights include the elemental growing-up tale “I’m Fine Either Way” and the Eagle-esque lost-love rocker “Way Down.” “One More Believer” is a slightly sappy but effective religious song that only the most militant of atheists could fail to appreciate. “Started a Band” is a catchy, humorous take on the ups and down of trying to make it in music.

Anyone who mines this standard territory risks over-sentimentality and cliche, and Pinson slides a little too far in that direction in “Ford Fairlane” and “Shadows of the Heartland.” But these are exceptions. Nearly all the songwriting on this album is solid, and some of it is sparkling.

Pinson’s voice combines the heft of Bruce Springsteen with the plaintive catch of Townes Van Zandt. It’s an instrument perfectly suited for his formula: four parts old-fashioned subject matter straight from the heart, one part modern angst.

Highly recommended for fans of country music, roots-rock, heartland rock, and good storytelling via song.

[Cross-posted at Blogcritics]

Americana Goes Hollywood

For the first time in its four-year run, the Americana Music Honors & Awards will be broadcast to 37 million homes via the GAC (Great American Country) cable TV network this Fall. Hosted by two-time award winner Jim Lauderdale at Nashville’s legendary Ryman Auditorium, the awards show will be taped on Friday, September 9, 2005 at 7 PM, and broadcast Monday, September 26, 2005 at 8 PM ET. GAC also plans repeat showings.

Though it may appear to be just another awards show, the nationwide broadcast of the Americana Music Association’s annual festivities is a strong indication that the somewhat hard-to-define genre is here to stay. Americana may indeed be more accurately described as a musical movement rather than a genre. As the Association describes it:

Americana is American roots music based on the traditions of country. While the musical model can be traced back to the Elvis Presley marriage of hillbilly and R&B that birthed rock ‘n’ roll, Americana as a radio format developed during the 1990s as a reaction to the highly polished sound that defined the mainstream music of that decade. By also including influences ranging from folk to bluegrass to blues and beyond, Americana handily bridges the gap between Triple A radio and mainstream country.

The key phrase there is “a reaction to the highly polished sound” of mainstream country & western music. Americana artists may be, and often are, just as fine musicians as the famed Nashville “studio cats” you’ll hear on the latest Faith Hill crossover nightmare, but their music isn’t all about slick perfection, it’s about a simpler feel and lyrical authenticity. Unlike the period-instruments movement in classical music, however, Americana is not meant to re-create traditional music, but to suggest the honest, rootsy sounds of those idioms using modern, if generally stripped-down, instrumentation. This week’s chart, for example, is headed by John Prine (who, interestingly, significantly predates the term “Americana”), and also includes black-sheep country singer Dwight Yoakum, Bruce Springsteen’s latest, Shelby Lynne, Loudon Wainwright, and even blues diva Marcia Ball.

INDIE ROUND-UP for June 16 2005

INDIE ROUND-UP for June 16 2005

Sonya Heller, Fourth Floor

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

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

Rick Cusick, East

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

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

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

Elisa Korenne, Favorite

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

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

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

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

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

Song samples available here.


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

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

[Cross-posted at Blogcritics]

CD REVIEWS: Gentle Giant – Freehand & In a Glass House

Recently I read Jan Swofford’s justly lauded biography of Johannes Brahms. Listening to, thinking, and talking about little but Brahms for several weeks, I discovered that among casual classical music listeners appreciating Brahms’s music is commonly thought to require more concentrated brain power and deeper understanding than music by certain other composers, such as Mozart, or, ironically, the highly mathematical Bach.

Brahms’s not entirely fair reputation as the thinking person’s classical music has a more recent analogue among progressive rock bands: Gentle Giant, indisputably one of the genre’s greats, is often thought of – when remembered at all – as a band that made intricate, interesting but rather soulless music. Now, founding member Derek Shulman’s own DRT Entertainment label is re-releasing seven of the band’s albums, along with additional material, affording an excellent opportunity to both re-evaluate this classic music and expose new audiences to it.

Progressive rock’s star has fallen pretty low. When we think of bands like Yes, Rush, and Emerson Lake and Palmer we tend to remember the hyperseriousness and symphonic bombast that characterised those bands at their worst, forgetting their musicianship and originality and the excitement they engendered in audiences who in the ’70s looked to rock – hard as this may be to believe today – for musical adventure, not just pretty faces and a beat, or sullen anger.

Current bands that accept the moniker “progressive rock” tend to be of the heavy metal variety; we don’t apply it to inventive bands with a lighter, often humorous touch, like They Might Be Giants or Primus, whom we tend to think of instead as one-of-a-kind oddities. But they’re not. Even a band with a unique, unmistakeable sensibility and sound doesn’t exist in a vacuum either in space or in time. It’s well worth recalling the history going back to the late 1960s of extraordinarily creative, composed concert music played by rock bands to large and cheering, if stoned, audiences.

Exhibit A: Gentle Giant at the Calderone Theater in Hempstead, New York, where I saw them in the late 1970s. Just a bit earlier, in ’76, they’d recorded a live album there called Free Hand. It and In a Glass House (from the same year) are the first two releases in the current 35th anniversary reissue series. Remastered, the recordings sound fresh, not at all dated. Free Hand is the slightly more pop-oriented, playful record; In a Glass House has longer, more avant-garde pieces (though the band does rock out sometimes, as in “Experience” and “The Runaway”). Together the two releases demonstrate the band’s mastery of a whole orchestra of instruments and their absorption of a head-exploding variety of forms: from hard rock, soul and the Beatles to Stravinsky, Celtic dances and mediaeval canons.

Saying Gentle Giant’s music is cerebral just means that it makes your brain dance, and what could be wrong with that? Not that you couldn’t move your body too to songs like “Just The Same” and “Free Hand.” It’s accessible music that’s loaded with musicianly wizardry but in spirit only a modest leap from the serious pop-rock of The Moody Blues, Jethro Tull (circa Warchild or Thick as a Brick), or Gentle Giant’s own earlier, pop incarnation as Simon Dupree and the Big Sound. This is the right time for a reconsideration of Gentle Giant, and the high quality of these reissues bodes well for the rest, due later this year.

[Cross-posted at Blogcritics]

INDIE ROUND-UP for May 5 2005

It’s only natural that a male-dominated music industry should use its promotional juggernaut to turn attractive female singers into icons. What’s more interesting is when it tries to reverse the process and turn icons and other cute things into singers. Lil Jon, who is collaborating with the much-less-stupid-than-she-looks Paris Hilton on a CD, is quoted in the New York Times as saying that people told him “‘You’ve got to be kidding, she can’t sing,’… But it didn’t really matter to me because she is sexy. And if you can capture that on a record, she could easily sell a million quick.” Meanwhile Paula Abdul is in trouble for allegedly coaching an American Idol contestant with whom she was also secretly romantically involved. The thought of Paula Abdul – a good dancer and choreographer, not a bad actress, but not even remotely a singer – “coaching” a contestant in a singing competition just made me laugh. Then there’s J-Lo – ’nuff said.

INDIE ROUND-UP for May 5 2005

CD: Third Road Home, Venus In Retrograde

So, call me a wacko, but I prefer singers who can sing, like Third Road Home’s Trinity Demask. The Colorado singer-songwriter and her husband, multi-string-guy Tom Demask, have created (mostly in their living room) a very nice-sounding Americana CD. In well-written songs documenting the landscape of life, the contrast between Trinity Demask’s plaintive tone and the lyrics’ mostly positive outlook gives the whole production the natural tension that good music is all about. There’s nothing adventuresome about Third Road Home, but with vivid lyrics, good melodies and strong choruses – as in the lively songs “Awakening,” “Come Undone” and “Whatever Is,” the sturdy ballad “True North,” and the lovely, whispery “Not the Same” – you don’t need to reinvent the wheel or jump off any cliffs to make a beautiful sound.

The songs can go slightly awry when their lyrics do too much telling and not enough showing. “Here With You Today” has some vivid lines (“Joy rides and broken-down cars/Searching for clarity in smoky bars/Desert sun, icy rain/Hearing that same old song again” but also some dry wordiness: “All the timely misfortunes, all the turns that left me open/Decisions that I feared from opportunity had led me astray/Have led me here to you today.” But the only sizable flaw on this CD is the inclusion of a few weak non-originals. The boring “Make It Plain” and the awful “The Distance Between You and I” stick out like sore thumbs (and not just because of the misbegotten grammar) from this otherwise sweet-sounding and tasteful collection. Fortunately Trinity Demask, the group’s main songwriter, writes as well as she sings. She and her able partner and team have made a valuable addition to the acoustic-Americana shelf.

CD: Arlan Feiles, Razing a Nation (The Ballad of a New Lone Ranger)

Moving from the music of sweetness to the music of pain, we encounter Arlan Feiles, a folk troubador from New York City with a penchant for war stories. Sometimes you can really hear in people’s music where they make their home, and the passionate intensity in Feiles’s voice and melodies does indeed suggest the oppressiveness that sometimes makes city life tough to bear. The songs are about soldiers, sometimes literally, other times using battle imagery to express a lover’s feelings, almost always looking at life as a battle to be fought. “I Fell” is a rare exception, a simple love song with only a tiny touch of melancholy.

Throughout the CD Feiles’s quavery voice, half Adam Duritz and half Dave Matthews, stands front and center against the plain acoustic-guitar background. Other than a little harmonica, occasional piano (all played feelingly by Feiles) and a few backing vocals, that’s all there is, but it’s enough.

The CD is almost a concept album, an extended tableau of one man’s stand for honor and love against opposing forces. My only complaint is that there’s too much sameness of tone to merit a thirteen-song, 50-minute opus. Once you get seven or eight songs in, you’ve gotten the picture and the singing is starting to sound whiny. (But don’t miss the Dylanesque “I Will Come For You” near the end.)

EP: Central Services, self-titled

If you’re in the mood for some jaunty rock with one leg in the late 60s and one in the present, you could do a lot worse than Central Services. Moving from deft power-pop to wavy acoustic grooves, the Seattle group has a knack for harmonies and hooks. Kevin Emerson, who is also the drummer for Math and Physics Club, has a controlled, airy tenor that isn’t terribly strong but works nicely with the band’s delicate arrangements. His sensibility as a songwriter has a subtle dark side, too, as evidenced by “Perfect Drug.”

Their press materials reference Fountains of Wayne and Ben Folds, but they’re neither as hard as the former nor as syrupy as the latter, and their sound harks back to the era of the Byrds and the Turtles as much as it nods to contemporary pop fauna. Though there’s nothing quite as catchy here as “Stacy’s Mom” or “Eleanor,” it’s a promising start for Emerson and his talented crew.

[Cross-posted at Blogcritics]

CD Review: Victor Wooten, Soul Circus

A “musicians’ musician” is one known primarily as a virtuoso sideplayer rather than an artist in his or her own right. Though such players are usually not household names, major stars utilize their services, and less gifted musicians – especially those who play the same instrument – hold such individuals in awe.

Among electric bassists Victor Wooten stands at the top of the musicians’ musician pantheon. He’s had a substantial career as an artist, but among music fans he remains best known for his work with Bela Fleck. There may be several reasons for this, but one is the mixed focus of his previous solo work. While the musicianship is never less than stellar, some of the work has been too smooth-jazz for many tastes, while at other times Wooten gets into an 80s pop vibe that has needed more hookier songwriting to pull off.

It’s a pleasure to report that, taken a whole, his new CD is his best work yet. Like a lot of virtuoso solo work, it’s complex and self-referential, but it’s almost never self-indulgent, and it boasts solid songwriting, a modern, accessible sound, and smoothly integrated contributions from various guest artists.

“Victa” is the type of personal statement that will be very familiar to rap fans, introducing the artist and his attitude. “Prayer,” one of the disc’s very best tracks, has a simple but tasty hook that sticks in the mind; the different time signatures in verse and chorus somehow add to the grooviness. The highly rhythmic “Natives,” another top track, features Native American Grammy-winner Bill Miller on vocals, flute and percussion.

A jazzy instrumental cover of Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Can’t Hide Love” is followed by the fun and funky “Stay,” whose verse is in 11/8 time. You might not be able to march to it, but you sure could dance to it. “On and On” features the vocals of guest Saundra Williams, whose extreme laid-backitude works better in the background than in front; the song has a pretty chorus, but more powerful lead vocals would have improved it. (The draggy rap by Arrested Development’s Speech, who makes more inspired contributions elsewhere on the album, seems dropped in from nowhere). “Cell Phone” is gimmicky fun, committedly a rap song and featuring cell phone rings actually integrated into the music in an unusually intelligent and pleasurable use of such sound effects.

The title track has a rich soul groove (and if you’ve never heard vocal “slap bass” here’s your chance). “Higher Law” is just so-so, but it’s always interesting to see an all-around player like Wooten (aided by older brother, guitarist Regi) take on rock. In contrast, “Ari’s Eyes” is that rarity, a soft ballad explicitly inspired by the artist’s child that’s not cloyingly sweet. Maybe that’s because it’s mostly instrumental. Normally, hearing someone sing about how much they love their kid just makes me want to retch.

This CD won’t induce any such feelings. Without blatantly showing off (except in the funky ode “Bass Tribute”), Wooten and his team – which includes numerous other members of his preteternaturally talented clan – inject enough variety to satisfy many tastes, while maintaining enough of an overall vision to make the CD hang together well. You could listen carefully and follow the notes and lyrics on the website – that would increase your appreciation of the album – or you could just put it on in your car and hit the highway, or put it on at home and seduce your music-loving lover. Your choice.

Available at

[Cross-published at Blogcritics.]

INDIE ROUND-UP for April 7 2005

This week’s crop of indie releases proves that the slightly amateurish can be more satisfying than the slickly professional(ish) – it’s all about inspiration and having something original to say.

INDIE ROUND-UP for April 7 2005

CD: Tim Young, Red

If you pine for the time when people could simply write songs and sing them, not caring whether someone called them rock, pop, folk, blues, country, or psychedelic – if you miss, I suppose, the late 60s and early 70s – you’ll particularly appreciate this batch of heartfelt songs from New York City troubador Tim Young. Young’s unschooled, urgent vocal delivery and lo-fi aesthetic combined with his solid and energetic guitar playing and fertile creativity places his music at the intersection between urban folk, heartland rock and outsider music.

I mention outsider music because Young’s vocals sometimes get so enthusiastic they become what one might call unmusical. But even with his flaws Tim Young is impossible not to like. Many of the songs are well-crafted; all illustrate the human condition in its complicated glory and shame. The title track, for example, uses nearly surrealistic lyrics to say something that seems both unclear and deeply important:

One time I wanted red hair
I wanted it black I wanted it red
I’m alive I’m not dead
Go on get lost see if I care…
I live in the clouds under the cemetery
So dark in here I can hardly see

“Disaster” sums up this dark take on life in more straightforward fashion: “I’ve done drugs I’ve gone straight/nothin’ ever eased the wait.” But in contrast, another track I really like is the love song “Reason.”

In his wide thematic variety, Young doesn’t always hit the mark; “Torture” sort of is. (Well, it’s not a pleasant listen anyway.) But the unlikeable moments on this long, sixteen-song collection are few. If you like this music at all, you won’t mind listening to a long CD of it. If you need a sonic reference point, think Eric Burdon or Them, but with a softer, more lyrical side and a touch of country. Really, Tim Young mixes genres until there is no genre, just songs. And while there may not be anything on this disc as catchy as “Gloria” or “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” there’s a full hour of meaningful music.

Available at CD Baby

CD: Jack Rooney, What Goes Around

Jack Rooney is another inspired amateur, and I mean that in the positive sense of the noun. “We all contribute our own uniqueness to this world,” he says in his liner notes, “and in that sense, we are all artists.” It’s a good point and a very nice take on humanity. Like Brian Eno circa “Another Green World,” Rooney makes mood pieces, some with vocals, some spacey, others in a light symphonic rock style. The vocals, which carry mostly positive, inspirational messages, are mixed low and sung largely without inflection. This is effective for the style, but at times Rooney’s lack of vocal technique is a drawback, as in the title song, an inspiring track with a hummable melody that’s just a little spoiled by poor intonation.

The primary instrument is the grand piano, which Rooney plays deftly. Then he layers on synthesized tracks, including percussion, which lean some of the music towards modern electronica. The CD would benefit greatly from professional production and mastering, but even in this raw state it’s warm and affecting. Without ever being unmusical, Rooney’s music reminds one of a state or time of innocence, when we weren’t all so jaded and perfectionist about how things “should” sound.

Jack Rooney’s previous CD is available at CD Baby.

EP: Courtney C. Patty, Silhouette of Me

It all goes to show that packaging and production aren’t everything. Singer-songwriter Courtney C. Patty has been on the Pacific Northwest music scene for some time now and released three previous CDs. Her new EP sounds lovely, her performances on guitar and piano and her accompanying musicians are first-rate, and her promotional package and artwork are professional-looking. But on the evidence of this recording, she has yet to find a distinctive voice as a writer and singer.

Strange to say, but even now, halfway through the new decade, female singer-songwriters are copying (consciously or not) Natalie Merchant‘s vocal mannerisms, as is evident right away in this EP’s opening track, “London Bridge.” It’s the best song of the four, but its tale of a relationship’s denouement seems tired, and it just grates on me when people sing “between you and I.” The song has a pleasing acoustic-rock groove and a good chorus, but its promise isn’t fulfilled in the rest of the set. In the underwritten “April Shower” Patty combines a Tori Amos breathiness with that little-girl delivery that too many singer-songwriters use as a shortcut to indicate vulnerability.

The two closing ballads are pretty enough, and tell heartfelt stories, but the music is just too bland to hit home. One wishes Patty’d let loose vocally a bit on these tracks, instead of keeping her voice so close to her chest. The whole EP is a bit like that: writing that’s not quite inspired enough to shine through the tightly controlled performances.

Available at CD Baby

[Cross-published at Blogcritics]

Render Unto Jim…

I’ve had it with remixes.

We started to hear a lot more of them after Moby‘s 1999 album Play got so much, um, play. Today I heard several new remixes of classic Doors songs by the famous likes of Paul Oakenfold and The Crystal Method. Nowadays, indeed, most every time you search the Internet for a certain famous or “classic” song you find remixes.

I never liked ’em much, and now I’m really tired of ’em. So many of them merely set samples from the song over boring dance tracks. What’s bad about that is not the chopping up of the originals but the loss of the chord changes. If you’re going to call it a remix, it should be a re-setting of the actual song. If you keep the melody and remove the chord changes, it’s not the song. A melody and its underlying chords are interdependent, and if you take one of them away, it doesn’t matter what else you add, you’re still left with not-the-song. (I know, a song can be sung a capella. But in that case the listener’s mind supplies the chords silently, or makes them up if the tune is unfamiliar.)

I have nothing against sampling of the sort we typically hear in rap and other mainstream music, that is, re-using another artist’s materials to make a new artistic statement. Nor have I anything against interpreting an old song in a radically new way. What I’m tired of is being told, “Check out my remix of [whatever]” and finding it’s merely the original song disemboweled.

CD Review: The Matthew Skoller Band, These Kind Of Blues!

The Matthew Skoller Band makes solid, harmonica-heavy, Chicago-style blues. Skoller’s husky voice, like Stevie Ray Vaughn’s, contrasts nicely with his ace band’s smooth (but mercifully un-slick) arrangements, while his virtuoso harp playing lends both pathos and sheen to many of these mostly original tunes.

This, the band’s fourth CD, opens with a couple of straightforward rolling-blues numbers, but moves on to a more interesting musical statement in what I think of as the “lyrical” blues mode with the unabashedly political “Handful of People.” Over a swelling two-chord obbligato in the gloomy key of A Minor, Skoller indicts the Bush Adminisistration for wars and social inequity. Whatever your politics, this is good blues, but right-wingers beware: you might have a hard time tolerating these lay-it-on-the-line lyrics.

However, by “lyrical blues mode” I’m not referring to lyrics – though they are important in this as in nearly all styles of blues – but rather to that sweet and passionate musical idiom that was fashioned out of blues basics starting in the 1960s by icons like B. B. King, James Cotton, John Mayall, and Jimi Hendrix in his “Wind Cries Mary” mode. Skoller’s mastery of this difficult mix of earth and sky, muscle and mind, make him more than just a talented musician and writer.

The title track is a straight-ahead rock-and-roll blues of a type any tight band could do, but when Skoller and Co. slow down for the soulful “Let The World Come To You,” they come to the real heart of the album. Decorated by wonderfully subtle Hammond organ from Sidney James Wingfield, flavored by Brian Ritchie’s cooing shakuhachi (a Japanese wooden flute I’ve never before heard in blues), and featuring a scintillating guitar solo by either Lurrie Bell or Larry Skoller, this six-and-a-half-minute epic has got a little of everything in perfect measure – even some gospelly backing vocals. It’s a real slow-blues treasure.

“Wired World” is a funny complaint about being too reachable. Though it’s not about love, it seems almost a tribute to the Vaughn Brothers’ “Telephone Song.” (The hooky “Julia” also has that sunny Stevie Ray Vaughn style.) But “Stolen Thunder” is the CD’s standout uptempo track. The lyrics seem to refer to a talented friend who’s wasting his life in a world of drug dealing. The single chord and insistent beat evoke musically the frustration and hope laid bare verbally in the chorus:

I wonder if I tried could I save him?
Ya think if I tried I could save him?

The answer, one fears, is no. But the refrain sure stays with you.

“Down At Your Buryin'” is a James Cotton cover where Skoller and his band show their ability to adapt a dark and angry country blues to their own style, with a wailing, almost unearthly harp solo from Skoller, very earthy piano from Johnny Iguana, and the welcome return of that ghostly shakuhachi.

The CD closes with a drawling, hip-hop remix of “Handful of People” by rapper J.A.Q., who’s right down with Skoller’s politics. The remix was an inspired idea, an interesting change that still goes down smoothly with the rest of the album.

Highly recommended for all blues fans.

Musical Happenings

Heard some incredible music from Steve Gorn last night at the Knitting Factory’s Concert for Darfur. Steve’s a master of the bansui, a bamboo flute from India. Accompanied by a second bansui player and the large, droning stringed instument called the tambura (played by a somewhat distractingly beautiful woman, but that’s just me), Steve played a long, late-night raga that sent the audience swooning into clouds of relaxation and beauty. I’m sure glad we didn’t have to follow him on stage; it would have been a jarring transition to Halley DeVestern’s music. Fortunately, Terre Roche was scheduled in between us, and meeting her was something of a thrill since I grew up listening to the The Roches. Her voice was as high and strong as ever.

Our set went extremely well. Maybe this is a non-p.c. thing to say, but I’m beginning to think the key to a really successful Halley DeVestern show is having a few black people in the audience. You New York readers are invited to catch Halley and me with The Hot Button All-Stars at Cornelia St. Cafe this Wednesday, Feb. 23, at 10 PM. (We’re preceded by Little Toby Walker, a wonderful country-blues wizard I’m proud to have in my line-up.)

Less Is Not More

It will be news only to the very few in my large circle of friends and acquaintances who missed the Whisperado show last night that our drummer David sprained his ankle just before the gig, so Patrick and I performed as a duo.

We did have a little vocal help from the redoubtable Halley DeVestern, who has been the subject of heated discussion on The Velvet Rope this week (but that’s another, albeit probably more interesting story).

I’m sure I learned valuable lessons from having to play our music in unfamiliar circumstances. I’m sure I did. Honest. Really valuable ones. Lessons, I mean. That I learned.

The only thing I really noticed, though, was that my tolerance for alcohol seems to have dropped to virtually nothing. I couldn’t even finish the single beer the bar bought me. My semi-nightly glass of red wine has been throwing me for a loop recently too. Something horrible has happened! This can’t be. This Can’t BEEEEEEEEE……. Halley’s quit drinking for health reasons and now she can’t stand the smell of alcohol on anyone’s breath, including mine. Could I be becoming an involuntary sympathy-teetotaler???

CD Review: Blaine Larsen, Off To Join The World

Through ignorance or bad advice, very young artists often bite off more than they can chew, applying precociously mastered technical skills to adult material they can’t quite get their souls around. Teenage country singer Blaine Larsen, who sings in a clear, rich baritone that sounds at least a few years more aged than he is, has not made this mistake. He and his producers have written and chosen a nice variety of songs expressing real-life matters from a youth’s point of view, and Larsen has the voice and the skills to put them across.

A number of the songs are frankly autobiographical. “The Best Man,” which pays tribute to a devoted stepfather, has a sweet, if obvious, lyrical payoff in the last verse. I was nervous about a song called “In My High School,” but while its depictions of “jocks” and “rednecks” and “outcasts” carry no surprises, its sentimentality stops short of the cloying: “In my high school they hold assemblies for the football team / But never for the kids with different dreams.” Heck, you can’t argue with that.

The clever, banjo-powered love song, “That’s All I’ve Got To Say About That,” along with “Teaching Me How To Love You,” which features Larsen’s most affecting vocal, show his ability to sing convincingly about both the light and heavy sides of love. “Yessireebob” is a cute novelty number that highlights a playful sense of humor, and “The Man He’ll Never Be” couches a softly intense vocal performance in a lovely, folksy minor-key arrangement that brings the young Paul Simon to mind.

The up-tempo “That’s Just Me” is a by-the-books “I’m just a gool ol’ country boy” tune, but it’s hard to resist. The waltz “Off To Join The World” echoes “Mr. Bojangles” and puts an amusing twist on running away with the circus. And the CD closes with one of its best tracks, “How Do You Get That Lonely,” about the suicide of a teenage friend. Thus the circle of a modern teen’s experience is closed with a tragic last link.

Of course, the music industry chews up and spits out a hundred Blaine Larsens every week, and the persona expressed in our young hero’s music is so goshdarned nice that one almost fears for him. But with a deep, welcoming voice, strong songwriting ability, excellent guitar skills, impish good looks and a smart team behind him, he probably has a better chance than most. This would be a good record from any artist, and it’s certainly a fine start to a career.

CD Review: Willie Hightower

Willie Hightower’s time in the spotlight was far shorter than you might expect from the quality of his recordings, the best of which can stand tall beside the classic work of Sam Cooke (his number one influence), The Temptations and Smokey Robinson. Hightower recorded on Bobby Robertson’s independent labels and on Capitol, and with Muscle Shoals producer Rick Hall (who’d made his name working with Etta James, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin). So the elements of success seemed to be present. I suppose the problem was timing: Hightower’s late ’60s recordings came at the tail end of the era of “classic” soul, when tastes were changing.

This collection should help bring Hightower, who is still active, out of his unjustified obscurity. “Walk A Mile In My Shoes,” one of his two Billboard-charting singles, is one of the greatest soul records ever made. The other hit, “It’s a Miracle,” is a gorgeous, celebratory love song sung with achingly pure, strangely sad tones unlike anything Cooke had in his vocal arsenal.

Tracks like “If I Had a Hammer” and Hightower’s own utopian “Time Has Brought About a Change” reflect the passions surrounding the civil rights movement: “Once I wasn’t considered a man / Given no respect at all / But now I’ve got my pride deep down inside / And no one will ever take it again.”

“It’s Too Late” is another track worthy of classic status. Hightower wails this dark you’ll-come-crawling-back poor man ballad like his life depended on it.

Willie Hightower brought a strong, beautiful and versatile soulfulness to a set of fine songs over his recording career. This great collection, which appears to contain all his important recordings, will be a welcome delight to all lovers of soul music and an important discovery for many – like myself.