CD Review: The Great Unknowns

Joining an increasingly extensive and rich body of new roots music is this first release by The Great Unknowns, a quartet of seasoned musicians fronted by singer Becky Warren. Warren, who co-writes the songs with guitarist Michael Palmer, has a voice reminiscent of Lucinda Williams’s, but her tones are easier on the ears, and though the Unknowns’ songwriting isn’t as sharp as Lucinda’s (but whose is?), it’s good enough to earn this CD a place on my Americana shelf. With layered, guitar-heavy but understated arrangements and clean production, it’s a sweet listen nearly all the way through.

Warren sings these original but quintessentially American tales of lost love and wandering souls in a drily expressive drawl, like an alto Patty Griffin, or a less affected Adam Duritz. You can hear both a pervading sadness and a persevering spirit in her unhurried delivery. The band has a knack for concise, penetrating lyrics: “Since you’ve been gone/My heart is a fist.” “Don’t try to blame it on no one else/You broke my heart all by yourself.” And, from “Something To Do,” a Patty Griffin-like plaint which ought to turn up on the Americana charts: “I’m just something to pass the time when you feel blue/Just something to do.” “Round Hill,” another highlight, has a chorus that climbs into your ear and settles in for the long haul.

Of the slower songs, I liked “Don’t Come Home,” sweetly sad with its 6-8 sway, and “Deliver Me Home,” whose angular melody and unexpected minor chords give a nod to The Band. “We’ll Be Okay,” though, doesn’t rise above its lyrical cliches (did we really need another song that goes “We’ll spread our wings and fly away”?). And I wouldn’t have opened the CD with the shambling “Las Vegas.” But overall, the sharp wisdom of the lyrics, the grown-up, straight-ahead power of the music and Warren’s sweet-and-sour vocals make this debut a keeper.

CD and Concert Review: The Explosion

As long as there are kids and parents, there will be authority and rebellion, and as long as there is authority and rebellion, there will be punk or something like it. If you define punk broadly, as music that symbolizes youthful rebellion, then jazz was punk in its day and Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis in theirs.

But jazz has long since gone highbrow, while rock-and-roll became an object of nostalgia hardly two decades after its invention. New generations may discover and appreciate those forms, but they don’t adopt them in large numbers. So one may justifiably wonder why the loud, high-speed, often angry form of rock created in the 1970s by bands like the Sex Pistols and Buzzcocks is still vibrant and popular today. It’s not old punk fans from back in the day filling the clubs to see bands like The Explosion, who played last night on a bill with Rise Against at BB King’s in New York City. It’s today’s teenagers and college kids on the floor, pointing their fingers, jumping up on stage and smothering lead singer Matt Hock in bear hugs.

The Explosion is a 21st century punk band that seems to be approaching the top of its game. While clearly inspired by the Buzzcocks and others, their intelligent, self-aware lyrics make it clear that they appreciate the wider picture of where punk – narrowly defined – fits both in music history and in the context of youthful rebellion.

For one thing, the band is politically outspoken, as in their protest song “Atrocity”:

I try to sleep, I grit my teeth,
I’m so afraid, what will tomrrow bring?
I won’t fight in any wars
and I can’t stand to see much more atrocity

“No Revolution” seems to blame apathy on existential doubt, and is worth quoting at length:

When the blood was red and the lies were black and white
They put their hands together they thought they had the right
We know they made mistakes but we still imitate
Keep the spirit alive when there’s nothing left at stake
Now our heroes seem further away
Your fists in the air but nothing has changed
Would they shake their heads would they feel ashamed
Fists in the air for a fucking name
All we know is what came before
There’s no revolution anymore

And the fans sing along, fists in the air.

What makes the band’s seriousness work is the high-spirited energy of the songs, some of which have the kind of great hooks that will always make crowds sing along (when not bodysurfing). Those hooks, along with charismatic stage presence and solid musicianship, probably had something to do with the band’s signing to Virgin Records after becoming successful in their hometown of Boston. Look at on-line fan reviews of their major-label debut, Black Tape, and amid the raves you’ll find a couple of cantankerous cries of “sell-out,” but the fact that The Explosion has recorded new songs that are a bit longer and better produced than those on their indie releases doesn’t make them Green Day. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

On the CD, Hock does more singing – as opposed to shouting – than he does in concert. That makes the lyrics intelligible without reducing the music’s intensity. The best tracks include the irresistible “Filthy Insane” (a desperate protest from a frustrated office drone), and the catchy anthem “I Know.” I also like the protest song “Here I Am” and the elemental speed-chant “Go Blank.”

So why does music like this still sound fresh to young fans? “That old-time rock and roll” had great hooks too. Maybe it just comes down to speed and volume. Nothing expresses anger and frustration better than screaming and making a lot of noise and smashing things up, as The Who discovered forty (!) years ago. BB King’s in New York, which has a little bit of the flavor of an old-time ballroom, was actually a pretty good venue to see punk bands. Moshers and surfers jostled up front, while the raised areas in back and along the sides provided refuge for those who just wanted to listen. On a bill with three other bands, The Explosion had time for only a 30-minute set, but they crammed a lot of songs in and put on a tight, energetic show. Good songs, good musicians, an excellent CD and great live energy make The Explosion well worthy of carrying on the tradition of their punk forebears.

Concert Review: Meg Braun and Ari Scott at Cafe 111

Singer-songwriters Meg Braun and Ari Scott shared a set at Cafe 111 in Brooklyn last night as part of promoter Dan Herman’s Radio Crystal Blue showcase. The two have very differerent voices, but blended surprisingly well when they accompanied each other. Highlights of the set were Braun’s “Ohio Wind,” a fine folk-pop number, and Scott’s “Fortunate One,” a ghostly electric-piano waltz reminiscent of Jefferson Airplane’s “Lather.”

It was great to hear Meg do her own material after having worked with her in Kevin So’s band. She combines very strong pipes with a fluttery Judy Collins vibrato, while Scott’s more conversational, vibrato-free style lights up her quirky, sometimes humorous, often haunting material.