Laura Vecchione and Chris Trapper

More live music: again at the Living Room last night for Laura Vecchione‘s CD release show. Laura’s first CD made my “Best of 2006” list, and now she’s touring the country Laura Vecchione, Living Room, 9 Oct 2008
and shopping a brand new disc which, if last night’s show was any indication, is superb. (More on the CD in a future post.)

I complain that some of my favorite artists rarely if ever come to NYC. That’s because some of them are relatively obscure and tend to live in places like Texas and Oklahoma.

Still, I wouldn’t trade NYC for any of those places. So often I go out to see a band or a singer-songwriter and discover that somebody else really great Chris Trapper, Living Room, 9 Oct 2008 just happens to be playing that same night at the same club, or just around the corner. Last night we arrived for Laura’s show and found that Chris Trapper was playing right after her.

Elisa introduced me to Chris’s music (with the Push Stars) not long ago and I was hooked. So we stayed for his solo set. I laughed, I cried. (Seriously – some of his songs are very sweet and sad, and one of them was so sweet and sad it made me tear up.) If you’re not familiar with Chris Trapper’s music, what are you doing here? Go listen.

Malcolm Holcombe and More

Live Music

Our live music treasure hunt continued on Saturday at the Living Room, where we heard Malcolm Holcombe, a gravelly-voiced, almost scarily intense singer-songwriter from North Carolina. Elisa described him as “transformational” in that he pulls you completely into the world of the song he’s singing, and that’s a rare thing. Malcolm Holcombe He attacks his guitar like he’s kneading a recalcitrant loaf of bread, then turns around and picks with hushed sensitivity; with vocals like Tom Waits and songs recalling John Hiatt, he’s a force of music not to be missed. Here’s a recent profile on Holcombe in the Wall Street Journal.

Last night was our monthly Whisperado’s Mud Room event at Kenny’s Castaways. It was an especially special night of specialness because it brought together Whisperado (my original band, with David Mills and Patrick Nielsen Hayden), my old musical friend Jon Kolleeny, my upstate buddy John Scarpulla on whose debut CD I recently played bass, and the latest project in which I have become involved, a new Byrds tribute band called Eight Miles High, led by the indefatigable Roy Goldberg. A bleeping good time was had by all. My only problem was that since I was singing in two different bands over the course of the night, I needed to avoid the drying effects of alcohol consumption. Someone needs to invent an alcoholic beverage that doesn’t dehydrate the body. Perhaps it’s time for a Manhattan Project along these lines. Maybe DARPA should get involved. The economy needs the boost, doesn’t it?

Early to Late: The Week in Music, Part II

We picked up right where we left off yesterday, which was in Renaissance Spain. The Sephardic Jews are those who lived in Spain and Portugal and were forced to leave, or convert, at the end of the 15th century. Helping to keep the traditions of Sephardic music present and vital five centuries later is singer Mor Karbasi, who played her first ever New York concert this afternoon at Spiegelworld. The music resembled Arabic music at times, flamenco at times, and everything in between. She mixes new compositions with ancient tunes, accompanied by guitar, violin, and percussion. She has a beautiful voice and beautiful moves to go with them.

It was also a good excuse to finally see a show at Spiegelworld, in the big round tent with the round rows of seats and the trapeze hooked on the ceiling. The murky, humid weather kept the South Street Seaport crowds relatively light, although nothing fazes our beloved tourists. The auditorium for the concert was full, though. So hopefully Mor Karbasi will be back again. Meanwhile, British readers have plenty of chances to see her.

Early to Late: The Week in Music, Part I

I’ve been remiss in my live music blogging. I didn’t intend this blog to become just a second outlet for the CD and theater reviews that I already publish at Blogcritics. This week has turned out to be an excellent opportunity to change that.

It started with Soul of the Blues, my monthly series at Cornelia Street Cafe. This Wednesday’s show began with a tight set from Halley DeVestern and her band, playing blues-funk-rock songs from their upcoming CD. Halley sounds as great as ever, and you can hear a few of the new tracks at her Myspace page. Then Soul of the Blues favorite Matt Iselin hit the stage with his high-energy, creative piano pop. And finally, sight unseen, I had booked Kojo Modibo Sun, pianist Scott Patterson’s new band. I had played with Scott in Kevin So‘s band, so I knew he was a good musician, but I had no idea what his original project would sound like. It turns out to be a killer blast of soul-rock, largely inspired by Scott’s two-month trek on the Appalachian Trail, which won over a whole set of new fans who’d mostly come to see Matt. Watch for this band in the future. They play tonight at the Harlem Tea Room, 7 PM. Highly recommended.

The next night, Thursday, Elisa and I hit the Music Hall of Williamsburg, where our friend, publicist Crissa Requate, had invited us to catch Matt Morris, an artist on Justin Timberlake’s label, opening for Joan Osborne. Matt, who’s from Denver, played solo, and it’s a fairly big room, but he won over the seen-it-all crowd of Joan Osborne fans with his gorgeous voice and assured songwriting. Rarely will you hear a singer with as much control and sensitivity in switching between his regular tenor and his falsetto. I’ll be writing more about Matt in the near future. Meanwhile, New Yorkers can mark their calendars to hear him on Oct. 25, again with Joan, at the Highline Ballroom.

And on Friday night, they rested.

Then came Saturday, when we heard some of the oldest music (15th and 16th century) in one of the newest venues, the Times Center on 41st St. The Times Center is a strangely situated concert hall: the back wall, behind the stage, is clear, and through it you see, first, a courtyard with birch trees, and behind that, the lobby and elevator banks of the new office tower. It’s all painted a calming light-orange, but while you’re watching the concert you’re also watching, behind the action, the building maintenance staff pushing wastebaskets in and out of elevators. Far to stage right, you can also glimpse racks of suits in a brightly lit clothing store. The whole thing is like some sort of conceptual art-film experience, except it’s not.

The acoustics are excellent, and, because of the design, there are no bad seats. We heard three fine bands. I say “bands” because the GEMS Early Music/Early Season 2008 concerts are structured a bit like rock shows, where several bands play one set each. The first of the three, however, was an all-vocal quartet called New York Polyphony. They sang beautiful old liturgical settings by John Taverner, William Cornysh, and Christopher Tye. The Taverner piece was rather long, and consisted of plainsong sections (all four singing the same melody, as in Gregorian chant) alternating with multi-part (polyphony) sections. They followed it with an interesting modern take on the same structure, a much shorter but similarly designed piece by the modern-day English-Norwegian composer Andrew Smith. This brief interlude of modernistic close harmony made a nice contrast with the old stuff. I love hearing new musical sensibilities expressed with ancient sounds.

The group also makes a point of allowing the individual timbres of their four voices to stand out, rather than trying to blend so much that they sound like four iterations of the same voice. This came out strongly in the polyphonic sections of the music. It’s an effect that helps increase the entertainment factor, and that’s always a good bet with Early Music concerts. One feels a bit like a member of a secret club at these concerts, a club your average classical music listener doesn’t know about. Such concerts also tend to be more informal than classical music concerts, and this was no exception.

Following New York Polyphony came an enlightening performance of Beethoven’s Trio in B-flat, Op. 11, on period instruments in its original arrangement of fortepiano, cello, and clarinet (not violin). Ed Matthew of the Grenser Trio talked about his “classical clarinet,” a much lighter instrument than the modern version, with only five keys. Between that and the very light sound of the old-fashioned fortepiano, one felt one was hearing the music much as its very first audience must have heard it.

After the intermission came the act I had most looked forward to, Ex Umbris, a large group playing music of Renaissance Spain. This sort of thing is always a good time. It’s really party music, and the group treated it as such. Everyone plays a variety of instruments and also sings. There’s dance music, programmatic music, funny lyrics (provided in translation with the program), and an altogether humorous and delightful presentation.

Tell me, Moorish bitch,
tell me, slayer,
why do you kill me
and, while I’m yours,
treat me so badly?

Highlights of the set included Grant Herreid’s wonderful playing on the vihuela (the flat-backed Spanish lute), Nell Snaidas’s sweet soprano, and the playing of a sackbut (an early trombone which I think I’ve only seen before in museums), bagpipes, lots of recorders, and Priscilla Smith’s shawm-playing and pre-Raphaelite hair.

Everyone in the place happily
danced this way for five or six hours,
and at the end of such great fun
the bishop forgave them all.

Ah, the shawm. A concert just isn’t a concert if no one plays an instrument you’ve never heard of before.

Indie Round-Up: Cadillac Sky, Lewis, Dupree, Dunn, Minissale, Vigil, The Break and Repair Method

It's been goshawful busy over here at the Round-Up, with summer and fall releases piling up and lots of good music bursting insistently out of the piles of magical plastic. There's something for nearly everyone in this week's edition, from bluegrass innovators and a blues traditionalist to a solo disc from a member of Matchbox 20 and a couple of sharp "comeback" CDs. Onward to the music…

Cadillac Sky, Gravity's Our Enemy

One of the most rewarding experiences a new music aficionado can have is to come upon a band that both fulfills and transcends a beloved genre. Cadillac Sky is every bit a bluegrass band, but the Texas quintet quietly expands the frontiers on its second CD, and the result is one of the best discs to have hit my mailbox this year.

They establish their country and bluegrass credentials right away, with principal songwriter Bryan Simpson's high-lonesome keen opening "U Stay Gone." Close harmonies, banjo picking, a call-and-response section, and a mournful fiddle solo from Ross Holmes all follow, building into and out of hummable choruses – and that's just the first song.

The tempo picks up with the nervously jumpy "Goodbye Story," which is topped with sweet-as-molasses harmonies, another inventive fiddle solo, short features for Simpson's mandolin and Matt Menefee's banjo, and a clever breakdown section. "Bible By the Bed" is a gentle, sad ballad with a standard country music structure under a catchy, pop-inflected melody which devolves into a tasteful, wordless coda.

"My Precious Waltz" brings a spooky Eastern European flavor, aided by a guest appearance from Dan Cantrell on musical saw. It serves as an introduction to the fast-picked "I Hate How Happy She Is," which draws a twisted classic-rock sound from a set of acoustic bluegrass instruments and also showcases banjo wizard Menefee, while Simpson wails, "Why can't she be as miserable as me?"

That sense of humor is one reason these extremely skillful musicians never sound too studiously virtuosic. The CD continues with sad songs, inventive instrumentals, and some very un-bluegrassy moments, like the quirky instrumental break in "Wouldn't Put It Past Love," the old-time jazzy verses of "Inside Joke," and the unexpected minor-chord changes and plucked rhythms in "The Wreck." Simpson's also handy with traditional country-music songwriting rhetorical devices, as evidenced by "It Won't Be Over You," which closes pithily: "When my bones grow weary of this world / And my days are numbered few / I might hang my head down in regret / But it won't be over you."

Donna Lewis, In the Pink

After making a couple of sultry splashes in the late '90s with hits like "I Love You Always Forever" and "Love Him," Welsh-born Donna Lewis took a hiatus to raise a family. Now she's back, picking right up where she left off with an excellent new disc of danceable electronica-pop. Many of the songs have a meditative bent but also just enough catch that one's ears stay perked up. The songs with the livelier beats (like "Shout" and "Obsession") should stand up to any sort of dance-club use or abuse, while the quieter moments (like "Kick Inside" and the folky "You To Me") have a thoughtful and slightly exotic quality, reminding me of Emiliana Torrini.

Lewis's breathy vocals get a little monotonous over the length of a full CD, but with this kind of music we're not usually asked to listen to one artist for 40-plus minutes anyway. Its natural habitat is the dance hall, or to set a mood. Within her chosen style, Donna Lewis, working with producer Gerry Leonard and mixers Kevin Killen (and on one track, Hector Castillo), is top quality.

Robbie Dupree, Time and Tide

You have to go back further than the '90s for Robbie Dupree's splash. The hits "Steal Away" and "Hot Rod Hearts" came on his 1980 debut. Their smooth but rhythmic jazz-influenced pop fit right in with Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers, a style you don't hear too much these days.

Dupree has never quit, and his new disc should please loyal fans. Its nine tracks, mostly co-written by Dupree and session keyboardist David Sancious (Springsteen, Sting), sway gently with easygoing grooves. Vocally Dupree sounds as good as ever, if a bit mellowed, and there's a sprightly vitality to the arrangements. Some of my favorites: "Wrapped Around Your Finger," which resembles Sting's soft funk (though the similarity of the title to an old Police song is, as far as I know, coincidental); "Sugar Tree," which has more of a Doobie Brothers vibe; and "Blue Monday," which evokes memories of trips to the beach listening to Steely Dan and Boz Skaggs.

The ballad "Judgment Day" closes the disc on a thoughtful, vaguely haunted note of filial alienation. "My father was a sailor / He lived the life he loved… The years had made us strangers / And scattered us like stars." The character in the song never fully understands his father until the latter's death. Yet contemplative lyrics about the passage of time and resemblances to the sounds of past decades don't make this music an exercise in nostalgia. Dupree's sound and songwriting have a timeless quality. Solid writing and superior musicianship never go out of style.

James Dunn, The Long Ride Home

James Dunn's new record has a retro sound too, this time harking back to 1970s Los Angeles. Backing up the Jackson Browne-style vocals, though, lie classically solid songwriting and a smooth rock sound. The opening track, "Find My Way," is a dense, mostly two-chord drone that sets an effective mood but is a bit flimsy underneath. However, the album strengthens as it goes on. "Oak Tree" recalls Don Henley's "The End of the Innocence," and the disc really hits its stride with the undeniable "Oh My Don't Cry."

"The Long Ride Home" has a minor-key Southern rock flavor, while "Crush On You" revels in old-fashioned 50s-60s charm, which mixes nicely with hard guitars in the chorus. A highlight of the second half of the disk is the contemplative but moving "The Old Woman."

Phil Minissale, Home To Me

Phil Minissale is a young acoustic bluesman from Long Island, NY who's been rapidly ascending the ladder of recognition, and with good reason. Though his youthful voice hasn't acquired the gravitas we associate with traditional blues, these eleven songs are loaded with down-home honesty.

Minissale respects the traditions but writes his own songs. He tickles the guitar with assurance but without excess flash or flab, and happily offers the spotlight to his guest musicians, notably Ken Korb on harmonica and Red Molly's Abbie Gardner on dobro.

His approach to blues guitar traditions is reverent, but not so careful and precious that it sounds academic, as can sometimes happen with students of blues guitar. Finally, lest anyone claim that country blues is a game for the grizzled, let's not forget that Robert Johnson never made it past age 27.

Securely recommended for fans of traditional blues and folk.

Jason Vigil, Sometimes Always

Jason Vigil has matured both as a songwriter and performer since his uneven previous disc. On his new seven-song EP he's reined in the histrionics, resulting in a steady churn of catchy pop-rock. While you couldn't call his brand of earnest, guitar-based melody-making an original sound, it's tasty, well-made comfort food for the ears.

The Break and Repair Method, milk the bee

Matchbox 20 drummer Paul Doucette leaves the skins to Ryan MacMillan and steps out in front for his first solo CD, recording under the name The Break and Repair Method. Richly produced, with heavy emphasis on Doucette's powerful pounding on the piano and his slightly screechy, urgent voice, these ten tracks show a mastery of power-pop style and enough sonic originality to make the project stand out from the pack. (Part of that no doubt comes from co-producer Greg Collins).

Contributing musicians include Veruca Salt's Nina Gordon (whose own solo efforts have been very unjustly ignored) and Jellyfish's Roger Manning. But the disc has a consistent intensity that's all Doucette.

Indie Round-Up: Boggia, Coppola, Saunders, Jezzro

Jim Boggia, Misadventures in Stereo

Jim Boggia makes melodic, smart pop that's warmhearted but never overheated. He obviously internalized a lot of Beatles along the way, but he's actually mastered and incorporated a whole range of pop music strains into this engaging collection.

Boggia divides the disc into two "sides" (it's coming out on LP as well) and this doesn't seem like a gimmick, given songs called "8Track" and "Listening to NRBQ." Rather, it's a sign of a songwriter (and a bunch of excellent instrumental collaborators) who have music in their bones, make it for their own pleasure, and convey that feeling to the listener.

Boggia is the type of guy who'll take some background vocals he recorded for someone else's album, lift them out, and stick them between two songs on his own record because he liked them and they were buried in the mix on the other record. Then he'll close with "Three Weeks Shy," as potent an indictment of Bush and the Iraq War travesty as you'll hear in a song.

Lisa Coppola, Wisdom from the Pain

This country-rock EP boasts songs by John Waite and the Spin Doctors' Anthony Krizan. Coppola delivers them with steely determination and a twinkle in her eye. The most "country" song on here is "Your Love is Like a Rodeo," a fun tune on which, however, Coppola's voice sounds pinched. She's more engaging and convincing on the more soulful rockers "When You Were Mine" and "Temporary Heart," both of which are hit worthy. Cheap sentiment sinks the title ballad, but the closer, "Make This Moment (To Love Again)," while sentimental as well, has the charm of a classic pop bauble from the 50s.

Dudley Saunders, The Emergency Lane

Dudley Saunders started as a New York City performance artist, but the music he created for his act took on a life of its own, and now he's a recording artist with three CDs under his belt. This, his latest, is the first I've had a chance to hear, and it bears out some of the flattering words Saunders has gotten in the mainstream press. His voice has a tight quaver and a lot of focused power, like Jeff Buckley's. I didn't like Jeff Buckley – he always seemed to me a great voice in search of something to sing (I did like him when he sang covers) – but I do like a lot of Saunders's material here. A cross between modern folk and art song, it has a timeless quality, a soothing sound partially masking a humming tension. His voice is a finely tuned, subtle instrument, and his images flow like water:

buck-tooth call-girls on the corner
like red-haired roses in the rain
dropped off by a drunken mourner
on the wrong grave like a train
that old west bandits disconnected
from the engines and left scattered
'cross the tracks their vaults dissected
hoping that guy's looking at her

See the way he snaps you back to the scene at hand with that last line, like an actor with an audience in his hand. And then there's "Love Song for Jeffrey Dahmer." The visceral lyrics of these songs sometimes remind me of Leonard Cohen: "take me back home / 'cause you're the only rider / on the highway in my bones," Saunders sings in "Take Me Back Home Again."

Jack Jezzro, Solitude

The latest recording from busy bassist and guitarist Jack Jezzro is this solo guitar collection of standards, played in a relaxed (and relaxing) but not syrupy mode. Jezzro hits all the right notes on the way to striking this balance, in chestnuts like "Autumn Leaves," "Make Someone Happy," and the beautiful title track, a song made famous by Billie Holiday but that we don't hear often enough anymore. This disc would be a perfect gift for someone you love who has good taste in music, but really needs to calm down.

Music Review: The Keith Reid Project – The Common Thread

In the age of the singer-songwriter, the lyricist has become a rare creature (outside of musical theater). Yet some of the greatest rock acts of all time had one member or partner who wrote just the words. Mick Jagger, Jim Morrison, Bernie Taupin, and the Grateful Dead's Robert Hunter and John Perry Barlow are just a few of the famous lyricists of rock and pop.

Keith Reid is and always has been the lyricist for Procol Harum, responsible for classic songs like "Conquistador," "A Salty Dog," and of course the eternal "A Whiter Shade of Pale." Though it's been many years since Procol Harum's heyday, the band has continued to tour and release new material over the decades, and Reid has also collaborated with numerous other luminaries. It's about time for a Keith Reid Project.

This disc collects thirteen of his non-Procol songs, co-written with big names of pop music like John Waite, Manfred Mann's Chris Thompson, Terry Reid, and Steve Booker (who co-wrote Duffy's recent #1 hit, "Mercy"). Given the variety of collaborators, and vocals from singers as diverse (though all male) as Waite, Southside Johnny, and Bernie Shanahan, it's no surprise that the disc is uneven in style in quality. But there's plenty to like.

Reid and Thompson's "You're the Voice" is a powerful, shimmering mini-masterpiece of sleek pop with a message. (The song was a huge hit for John Farnham in Australia and elsewhere 20 years ago.) "The Heartbreak House" nods towards Americana, as does the folky, haunting "Potters Field" with music by Michael Saxell. "Ninety-Nine Degrees in the Shade" grooves with swampy soul under Southside Johnny's gravelly vocals. Terry Reid gives "Too Close to Call" a touch of Al Green's spirit, while "In God's Shadow" is a strong mid-tempo rocker featuring Waite in an Eagles-like, seventies-style arrangement.

Other songs fare less well. "Venus Exploding" drowns in overwrought 80s-style "St. Elmo's Fire" production, and the title track fizzles out like a Randy Newman throwaway. All Chris Thompson's emoting can't raise the power ballad "It Might Be Your Heart" above average, though one can imagine a generic r&b singer having a hit with it.

"Silver Town" is a good one. Co-written with and sung by Booker, it evokes acoustic Springsteen in populist mode: "We built this town from a grain of sand / Far away from the reach of Washington / Now they say they need the land / And bite the hand that feeds the greed of Washington…." but "though the money's all run out / There's a wealth of folk in Silver Town." The closing song, "Right About Now," looks back ruefully on a lost relationship and demonstrates, as well as any, Reid's lyrical gifts: "Right about now you'll be waking / And making your breakfast / In the cold grey light of dawn / And right about now you'll see my letter / The one that tells you that I'm not coming home."

So far the disc is available in the US only as an import, but you can hear some of it at the label's website or at Keith Reid's Myspace page.

Indie Round-Up: Mojomatics, Duane Andrews, Brandie Frampton, Alex Statan

The Mojomatics, Don't Pretend That You Know Me

The Mojomatics make a lot of noise for two guys, and a joyful noise it is. Their hype makes much of the country and bluegrass strains in their hard-driving pop-punk, but despite the presence of harmonica and a certain hillbilly Kentucky Headhunters vibe, the music fits right in with the post-Green Day likes of the Hives.

Like a good basketball team – or maybe more like a pair of beach volleyballers – the Mojomatics execute their fundamentals just right: short, speedy songs with big beats, some punchy hooks, and just as important, a sincere sound. The best tracks, like "Wait a While," "Miss Me When I'm Gone," and the countrified "Askin' for Better Circumstances," are keepers.

I wish the disc boasted more songs as good as those. But the beat and the high-spirited energy never flag. This is juicy garage punk that means what it says – and it comes from two Italian guys who can play the hell out of their guitars and drums.

Duane Andrews, Raindrops

Canadian guitarist Duane Andrews grafts strains of the traditional music of his home province of Newfoundland onto the Django Reinhardt-inspired "gypsy jazz" stylings in which he specializes. The result is endearingly homespun, but also surprisingly smooth. Andrews's originals mingle with traditional songs, plus here a tune by Mingus ("Fables of Faubus") and there a tune by Django himself ("Blue Drag"). Abetting his woody acoustic guitar are a number of supporting musicians, most notably the soulful trumpeter Patrick Boyle and the energetic Atlantic String Quartet. This will be a happy addition to anyone's rootsy jazz collection.

Brandie Frampton, What U See

Brandie Frampton is from Utah, which, despite the odd rituals favored by some of its denizens, is not "international" from the US perspective. Still, like the above acts, Frampton comes from something like a foreign country: namely, the age of fifteen, definitely a distant land as the crow flies from these fortysomething parts.

This girl doesn't have a huge voice, but she can sing, and she thankfully refrains from overdoing the belt or the twang as most teenage "future Nashville stars" do – rather, she sounds blessedly sincere. She's also got a great team of producers, musicians, and songwriters behind her (she co-wrote three of the tracks on this short, sweet nine-song disc).

The predominant flavor is Nashville country. There's some crossover pop appeal as well, but not to the point where it seems calculated. And there's no filler – all nine songs are good. Holy Nashville skyline, Batman!

Can it be that an artist barely into high school is going to find her way on to your humble correspondent's keeper shelf? Yes – yes it can.

Alex Statan, Go Big or Go Home

Alex Statan's pop nuggets are hard to resist. With a touch of ska and a punch of rock, the songwriter-vocalist delivers the five songs on his debut EP with conviction and plenty of humor. The only partial failure is "Interference," where he tries to get too heavy and "alternative" and ends up making something of a thud. "Future Luver" has a heavy sound, too, but it's funny and a little scary; Statan puts a little Todd Lewis quaver into his voice there and elsewhere. "Don't Hold Back (The Ass Song)," "High Note," and "A.D.H.D." all hold promise of a solid career delivering fun times for all.

Music Review: Indie Round-Up – J.J. Appleton, Gandalf Murphy, Gary Morgan and PanAmericana!

J.J. Appleton, Black & White Matinee

Every so often a little jewel of a CD comes along. J.J. Appleton's new six-song disc falls short of full-length, but merits more than the foreshortened "EP" badge. At 24 golden minutes, it seems the perfect length.

It opens with its "single," an old-fashioned term that still means something, at least symbolically. "Today Today Today" is certainly a catchy pop nugget; so is the title track, which nods to 1950s rock-and-roll. Appleton does this sort of rosy-cheeked pop as well as anyone, wearing his Beatles influence (mostly John, a touch of George) not like a heavy cloak but more like a shimmering shirt.

A more soulful take on pop sweetness is "Coming Back Alone." Its loping, gospel-influenced piano groove and soaring melody remind me a lot of Kevin So. In the gentle ballad "You're Sweet On Him," a smooth, jazz-folk melody slithers atop a Brazilian-style acoustic guitar accompaniment. "Caledonia Road" with its dark-toned verses and burst-of-sunlight chorus resembles something by Van Morrison or Martin Sexton. But though the songs vary in style, Appleton's strong musical personality carries through.

Gandalf Murphy & the Slambovian Circus of Dreams, The Great Unravel

I caught this band live last year and they instantly became one of my favorite acts. "Funny, deep, psychedelic, lyrical, and rootsy," I called them. Their new disc does nothing to change that.

The 13-song set is put forth as a celebration of the connectedness of all things, but it's equally a beautiful complaint against injustice wherever it is found. In the titanic opening track, "Desire," songwriter Joziah Longo rails against "terrorizing strangers knocking downstairs at our door," but in the gorgeous "Tink (I Know It's You)," love wins out: "Now that I can see / You're still here with me / We can take the reins and beat this thing together… We can merge in time / with the Great Divine / and we can build a world for all the lost and lonely."

This is no "dull sublunary lovers' love" but a transcendence of injustice and pain by means of human contact. Cosmic stuff. There are excellent songs on the second half of the disc, too, notably the catchy "Everyone Has a Broken Heart" and the hypnotic "Light a Way." But quoting lyrics doesn't give a sense of the lush yet elemental arrangements of these songs or their womblike melodies. Listen to some and then see if you don't want to pick up this CD as soon as it comes out.

Gary Morgan and PanAmericana!, Felicidade

My first serious music gig was with a swing band, and I've loved big-band music ever since. Combine the depth and tonal variety of a full jazz orchestra with Brazilian beats and flavors, and you've got something quite delicious.

Gary Morgan's orchestrations – of his own tunes as well as those by Brazilian composers like Antonio Carlos Jobim and Luiz Eça – range from propulsive to lyrical and everything in between. Adding French horns and Latin percussion to the standard saxes, brass, and rhythm section, Morgan creates masterful arrangements that rarely sound self-consciously virtuosic. Typically, every touch contributes to the musicality, even when bursts of brass power interrupt dreamy soundscapes, as in "Reflexos," or when he slows a bossa nova to a languid crawl in "Tudo Bem."

Besides "Tudo Bem," "Pedra Vermelha" is the second centerpiece of the set. Morgan orchestrated the existing arrangement by the composer, Itiberê Zwarg, whom Morgan is championing. It's a feathery, scintillating piece inspired by the Brazilian mountain of the title; judging from the jumpy music, Pedra Vermelha sounds like a place of bright waterfalls and scudding clouds. The piece even shades away from jazz and into a modern classical vein.  This dics's going right on my jazz shelf.

Music Review: Chuck Leavell, Live in Germany: Green Leaves & Blue Notes Tour 2007

A joyous noise erupts from this new two-CD release from keyboardist extraordinaire Chuck Leavell (Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Allman Brothers). The set opens appropriately with a Professor Longhair chestnut and motors on through Stones covers, standards, Leavell originals, and a lot more. The pianist has stepped out in front before, notably with his band Sea Level in the late 1970s, but his vocals, while pretty good, naturally tend to take a back seat to his playing, whether on studio recordings or on the road with the Stones and others.

This set was recorded last year, after the Stones’ “Bigger Bang” tour ended. Leavell gathered some top German musicians to back him up, and the result was captured in the live radio performance from which these nineteen tracks are taken.

While it’s always fun to hear a group of ace musicians rocking out on tunes like “(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66” and “Honky Tonk Women,” the highlights of Disc 1, for me, are the gently grooving jams “Living in a Dream” and “King Grand,” which date from the pianist’s Sea Level days. Saxophonist Lutz Häfner shines on the former, while Leavell’s piano wizardry kicks up the latter, with the band churning along like a perfectly oiled engine.

On the whole, the best parts of Disk 1 are the songs you haven’t already heard a million times. It closes with the great old boogie-woogie number “(That Place) Down the Road a Piece,” which the Stones (and many others) have covered, and the beautiful “Alberta, Alberta,” which was reintroduced to millions in 1992 via Eric Clapton’s hugely successful MTV Unplugged album which featured Leavell prominently.

Disc 2 features his loving version of “Here Comes the Sun,” which sounds great except that it makes you miss hearing the harmony vocals you’re used to. Same with his otherwise rocking version of “Tumbling Dice,” which is nevertheless a great rendition. The keyboardist’s jazz fusion side is vented in his own “Tomato Jam” and “Blue Rose,” where the band shows it can match any American musicians at this smooth-but-tense style of music.

The thunderous “Compared to What” gets a well-deserved ovation from the crowd, and it’s no surprise that the set includes the Allmans’ famous instrumental “Jessica,” which perhaps more than anything else made Leavell the go-to keyboardist he remains so many years later. When he’s inspired, he can cut loose vocally too, as on “Statesboro Blues.”

Chuck Leavell may be a “musicians’ musician,” but there’s something for almost everyone here, and a lot of bang for your buck.

Concert Review: Strawbs and Judith Owen at BB Kings, NYC

Strawbs got their start way back in 1964, as the Strawberry Hill Boys bluegrass band. They had success in the UK during the 1960s, undergoing several lineup changes but always led by singer-guitarist and main songwriter Dave Cousins. (Early on they worked with both Rick Wakeman and Sandy Denny). In the 70s the band moved away from its folk influences and towards a harder, progressive rock sound, achieving its greatest US and Canada success in that decade, with the Hero and Heroine and Ghosts albums.

Their set at BB Kings last night included "Round and Round," "Out in the Cold," and the dramatic "Autumn" suite, all from Hero and Heroine, and bang-up versions of "The River" and "Lay Down" from 1973's Bursting at the Seams. I especially enjoyed hearing the vintage synthesizer sounds from keyboardist John Hawken.

I was surprised at how well I remembered all these songs, considering the fact that I didn't own all the albums, and those I did own were on cassette and I hadn't listened to them in literally decades. Strawbs at BB Kings NYC 06102008 Somehow all this Strawbs music snuck into my head back in the late 1970s when my world was green and new…

From Ghosts they did the sweet ballad "You and I (When We Were Young)" and perhaps my favorite Strawbs song, "Grace Darling," about the Victorian heroine of that name. Lead guitarist Dave Lambert sang a few of his contributions, including the rocker "Heartbreaker," and they reached back to 1972's Grave New World album for Cousins' "New World," another highlight of the set.

Songs from that era form the heart of a present-day Strawbs show, which is not surprising considering they're touring with the classic five-man lineup of that era. They do have a new album coming out this fall, however, and from it they played the socially conscious "The Call to Action" and the hooky title track, "The Broken-Hearted Bride," which featured powerful three-part harmonies. Though none of the Strawbs were ever what you'd call amazing singers, they sound wonderful together, and Dave Cousins' reedy, explosive, unmistakable voice hasn't changed much over the years.

He doesn't look too healthy, though. The rest of the band is fairly spry, but it can be a little difficult to watch Cousins from a seat near the stage. It's not that he isn't alert. The show went very smoothly, and when he once stumbled over some fast lyrics he laughed, muttered "Bollocks" (a word that's always hilariously pleasing to American audiences), and didn't lose a beat or bat an eye – but one somehow fears for him.

Still, I'm glad I finally saw a band that meant a lot to me in days gone by – and, I realized, still does – but that I never got to see live before. Judith Owen at BB Kings NYC 06102008 You know how certain melodies or riffs get planted so deep in the roots of your consciousness that they recur in your mind for your whole life, unbidden? Several Strawbs melodies are like that for me.

Singer-songwriter-keyboardist Judith Owen opened, playing solo. A collaborator of Richard Thompson's, she won over the audience immediately with a half-Tori-Amos, half-jazzy version of "Smoke on the Water," and kept us tuned in with her funny and engaging stage personality and exquisite vocal delivery. Her original songs, like the jaunty "Creatures of Habit" and the bluesy "Walking the Dog," were all winners in their own ways. My fellow Blogcritics writer Holly Hughes reviewed Owen's new CD recently.

Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Stone Coyotes, Bloom, Preston, Sugar Blue

Yes, I’ve been out of touch for a while – a vacation in Europe and some life changes (good ones, but ones which make blogging seem rather unimportant). But the ol’ critical brain likes to keep getting its exercise. And the new music keeps pouring into my mailbox, and some of it’s pretty darn good. So here you go:

The Stone Coyotes, VIII

Another year, another strong record from the Stone Coyotes. This one opens a little strangely, with the slightly hesitant "Tomorrow is Another Day." The rocking really starts with "Land of the Living," which has one of singer-guitarist Barbara Keith's trademark half-shouted choruses; in this one she brings it home with: "Through the Valley of Death I've been driven / Now I'm back in the land of the livin'." There's always been a stark naturalness to the Stone Coyotes' songwriting, which exactly matches their basic rock sound, and that combination is what makes them so good.

"Not Right Now" is a growly, crunchy rocker about mortality and music, while the softer side of Keith's songcraft makes an appearance in "The Lights of Home": "From gilded cities and crowded skies / To desolate highways that hypnotize / Rolling wheels sing a traveler's song / To the ones like us who've been gone too long." But the disc's best track may be "All for Angelina," a haunting blast about the scary and mystical side of love and fate. The absurdly obvious "Brand New Car" becomes infectious in spite of itself, and the cover of Merle Haggard's sad "Kern River" shows off the band's grasp of rock's country-and-western roots.

While the wife-husband-and-son band overall sounds as good as ever, with bassist John Tibble having become very accomplished as a lead guitarist as well, Keith's vocals seem a little lighter than in the past. I hope this doesn't mean her energy is weakening; I am always looking forward to the next Stone Coyotes album. But there's a fatalistic tone to this one, summed up in the tense closer, "Grey Robe of the Rain": "I call to the sun in the sky / Dry the silver tear in my eye / I feel the dig of the chain / I wear the grey robe of the rain." In the final verse the singer attempts to defy fate: "still I refuse / To wither, to bend, to succumb to the pain / Someday I'll throw off the grey robe of the rain." It's an image from Longfellow, but it sounds a bit like Cuchulain fighting the waves.

Peter Bloom Band, Random Thoughts (from a paralyzed mind)

This is one of the more accomplished debuts I've heard in a while. Straddling the border between a singer-songwriter vibe and energetic arrangements verging on power-pop, the Toronto-based Bloom and his band put across his well-constructed, catchy melodies and emotionally charged lyrics with easygoing confidence. Best of all, there's a nice variety of feels from song to song, from head-nodding pop-rock to sensitive balladry, and the ten tracks are solid throughout – it's not a case of one or two standouts and a bunch of filler. Bloom's high, liquid tenor is very appealing – boyish yet with depth of feeling.

Josh Preston, Exit Sounds

Josh Preston's third disc has a haunting mechano-acoustic sound, smart lyrics, and melodies that are both soothing and hummable. Preston has a sharper sensibility than the typical singer-songwriter working in this laid-back mode, and this gives his songs appealing depths beneath their pretty surfaces. That doesn't mean he's going to rock you; to listen to the disc straight through, you'll want to be in a quite meditative mood.

Sugar Blue, Code Blue

If you're in the mood for some spankin' new funky blues – and how could you not be? – harmonica man Sugar Blue delivers with this free-flowing set of politically charged soul-busters. The disc is worth having just for the smooth and inspiring "Let It Go" and the strange, dreamy "I Don't Know Why." But from the funked-up "Krystalline" and the rocking "Bluesman" to the slow blues shuffle of "Bad Boys Heaven" (with a guest solo from Lurrie Bell) and the showy pop-jazz of the slightly weird "Walking Alone," Blue's inventive, wailing harmonica, his tense, straight-up vocals, his tight band, and his mastery of the whole constellation of blues-rooted styles cast a powerful and uplifting spell.

Stars Honor Bill Withers and Our Time, an Artistic Home for People Who Stutter

Possibly the most inspiring course I took in college was a study of W. B. Yeats. The professor, Jack Kelleher, was knowledgeable, but more important, he was passionate about the subject. But he had a severe stutter, and sometimes sitting in class listening to him lecture was a painful thing.

Professor Kelleher's stutter vanished when he recited the poetry. He even sang for us once or twice (some of Yeats's verse was written to go with traditional melodies). Our Time 1Reciting and singing he had no trace of a speech impediment. Later I learned that many stutterers don't stutter when they sing.

Last night's star-studded Our Time gala honoring Bill Withers brought this, and many other lessons about stutterers, home to a big happy audience of family, friends, and donors.  Our Time Theatre Company is a performing arts organization for kids who stutter. Most of us at some point in our lives have met someone who stutters, but stuttering kids who don't get emotional support often shut down and stay quiet, so we might not know when we see them. An estimated one percent of the population stutters.

Bill Withers is famous for his hits: "Lean On Me," "Ain't No Sunshine," "Lovely Day," "Use Me," and more. It turns out he also stuttered badly as a youngster. A lot of entertainment royalty turned out to honor him and to celebrate the achievements of Our Time. Providing "an artistic home for people who stutter," the organization has enabled and inspired many a kid to literally find their voices.

Some of the kids who took the stage to speak, emcee, recite, sing, or rap had mostly overcome Our Time 2their stutters, but many had not. Some had been in the Our Time program for years, but Our Time is not a therapist. To the contrary, it's a place where stutterers are given all the time they need to express their thoughts – hence the name "Our Time."  No one will interrupt them, finish their sentences, make fun of them, or assume they're stupid because they're slow to speak.

The love and energy on the stage proved what a good cause it was. The gala raised well over $200,000 for the organization. A whole bevy of stars took the stage together with the Our Time kids, performing songs of Bill Withers (who made a grand speech towards the end) along with songs and poems written by the kids. Rosie Perez, Ed Sherrin, Sam Waterston, Jesse L. Martin, Mandy Patinkin, Lauren Ambrose, Daryl Hall, Daphne Rubin-Vega, cast members from Spring Awakening, and other notables made appearances.

With all that, the most affecting thing was a rather humble and quiet speech made by a teenager named Andre Gillyard, who told a story – Our Time 3echoed by Bill Withers himself – of giving up, shutting down, just figuring he'd never amount to anything – and then having a fateful moment of discovery. 

For Gillyard, it was seeing something in the newspaper about Our Time, which has been active for seven years now. For Withers, many years earlier, it was meeting a local shopkeeper who simply showed patience and compassion. But look at that simple noun in the first sentence of the previous paragraph: "speech." Mr. Gillyard, a teenager with a still distinct stutter, made a moving and extremely well-written speech any high school valedictorian would have been proud of. He made a speech. We listened, we heard, we cheered. What more needs to be said?

Find out about Our Time's theater program, and their new summer camp, at their website or call (212) 414-9696.

1. Mandy Patinkin, Ed Sherrin, and Sam Waterston with Our Time kids
2. Bill Withers with Our Time kids and Spring Awakening cast members
3. Daryl Hall leads celebrities and Our Time kids in a rousing rendition of "Lean On Me"

Music Review: Rachel Taylor Brown – Half Hours with the Lower Creatures

Most singer-songwriters wouldn't start off a CD with a strange, more or less wordless, seven-minute space oddity of toy piano and the ambient sounds of a shopping mall. But Rachel Taylor Brown isn't like most singer-songwriters, and Half Hours with the Lower Creatures isn't like most CDs.

That opening track, "Hemocult/I Care About You," may chirp and plink like the soundtrack to a trippy video from the 1960s, but it's the right introduction to the unique sonic world that's encompassed in this plastic disc like a weird playground in a snow globe. Brown and co-producer Jeff Stuart Saltzman have twisted and woven Brown's off-kilter songs (and "songs") into a forceful and intriguing suite that uses some of the conventions of rock and pop – from the Beatles to PJ Harvey, from Laurie Anderson to noise-rock – but in unexpected combinations that somehow always make a kind of sense.

It's like a Sergeant Pepper for a decade lacking in hope. The theme of sacrifice predominates, introduced in the first real song, "You're Alright Sorla One (The Sell)": "you're alright of course you'll feel a little pain / you're alright everything is gonna change / i could wish a different kind of story."

The story that follows isn't different, it's unpleasantly familiar, but observed through Brown's unique artistic lens. "This hurts me more than it hurts you," says Abraham in "Abraham and Isaac (The Whack)." Someone is always feeling pain. In "Passion (The Goad)" it's Jesus. In "Mette in Madagascar (The Mission)" it's the singer, quietly fuming at a missionary's smug righteousness.

In "B.S. (Beautiful Savior) (The War)" and "Another Dead Soldier in Fallujah (Waste)" the victims are obvious, but Brown turbocharges her attack on the Iraq War by tying war motives and imagery to religious themes.

Musical colors also recur from song to song. The last long song, "Vireo," has obscure lyrics about the title bird, but the music grows spacier by the minute until it harks back to the opening track. It's followed by the sparse, beatless "This is a Song (Sorry)" in which, finally, the singer herself becomes the aggressor; but all she can do to vent her anger is to hurt someone she loves: "this is a song for someone i love i kicked in the gut i punched in the / eye this is a song for someone i love, this is a / song for didn't deserve it this is a song for better than i…"

That, right there, is the poetry of 21st century disillusionment. Just in case you were looking for it.

Hear extended samples and purchase CD or MP3s.

Music in the Middle

I know we’re living in Internet time, but this pic goes all the way back to last weekend (I know, shocking), at the John Scarpulla recording session at Tom White‘s studio in Middleburgh, near Cobleskill, NY, in the Catskills region. That’s John with the guitar, and you can see me on the right through the glass, looking intently at his fingers to make sure I’m playing the right note.
Scarpulla Sessions

I’ve been in a lot of recording studios, but this was probably the first one with horses outside. Here’s one of Tom’s beauties.
Horse at Tom White's Place

Cobleskill’s a nice upstate town with a pretty happening arts community (and some really nice Victorian houses).
Cobleskill House

On the way back to the city, we stopped at this other little house, which is also kind of nice. (For scale, note the tiny figure of Elisa in the white hat, lower left.)

Back in the Apple, Soul of the Blues featured Carol Thomas, in her first real gig after having her baby, and (pictured) Speedo’s Billy Rose Band.
Speedo's Billy Rose Band at Soul of the Blues, Cornelia Street Cafe

Meanwhile the Kings County Blues Band played what was probably its last gig at the Baggot Inn, which is sadly slated to close. Here’s me on bass, with Jeremy Kaplan on drums and Allan Spielman on keyboards. I’ve been hanging out at the Baggot Inn since the 80s, when it was the Sun Mountain Cafe. It was the first place I got regular gigs after I moved back to New York post-college. A dive then, it’s since had a great makeover and has lately been one of the nicest live-music watering holes in the city. Very sorry to see it go.
Kings County Blues Band at the Baggot Inn

Music DVD Review: Tangerine Dream – Live at Coventry Cathedral 1975

The artful television director Tony Palmer set his video footage of Tangerine Dream's 1975 Coventry Cathedral concert to music from the band's Ricochet album, for broadcast on the BBC. Since then the video has been available in poor quality bootlegs, but now here it is in a new DVD release.

Combining psychedelic effects with the cathedral's own architectural and artistic imagery, Palmer created an extended music video for a band whose performances, at that time, consisted of expressionless manipulation of analog synthesizers. The three musicians had a seemingly uncanny ability to build on each others' sounds in a live setting to create semi-improvisatory music of a kind that we no longer hear in this all-digital age.

In 1975, analog synthesizers hadn't been compressed into digital simulators within two-dimensional, soulless-looking electronic keyboards. Rather, they were big, sometimes huge banks of patch bays and "black boxes" manually linked together to create sound effects. This video is a good opportunity to witness how such instruments were played. Most likely, no concert of this nature will ever be performed again, by anyone.

On the video, however, the musicians' actions on keyboards and knobs don't match the music. How could they? The music is from an album that had nothing directly to do with this concert (though it was recorded at around the same time). This video is neither more nor less than an extended, psychedelic music video of a very cool (and important) band. It is not, however, what a lot of TD fans – an extremely devoted bunch – were expecting. The full title is Tony Palmer's Film of Tangerine Dream Live at Coventry Cathedral 1975. Technically, that's exactly what it is. But it led many fans to think that this was actually a film of the concert, with live sound, and it's not that at all.

At 27 minutes, with no extras and $26.98 on Amazon, it's overpriced, too, no matter what you call it and however enjoyable it may be on its own terms. Even Tangerine Dream completists might want to consider renting this first, or buying a used copy.

Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Gordone, Rush, Blatt, Segal, VonderHaar

Leah-Carla Gordone, Phoenix from the Ashes: Rise

Leah-Carla Gordone's folk-rock is an oasis of sincerity in a desert of irony and boastfulness. The best of her work grabs you by the gut, and this disc contains some of her best, most moving melodies to date. These melodies, together with her tension-wracked vocals, turn her best songs into whizzing worlds of twelve-string soulfulness – "Naked," "What It Feels Like," and "I Am Your Friend" are good examples.

Consistent sincerity, ironically (!), carries the danger of losing sight of the forest (art) for the trees (inspirational messages, thoughts, and feelings not focused through a creative lens). As with many confessional songwriters, Gordone cannot always control the tendency to populate lyrics with abstractions and cliches. It is frustrating to be drawn to the heartfulness of a tune and a voice, but then pushed away by a line that's so beaten down it's long since lost its cultural resonance. (A song such as "Tomorrow's Another Day" is an example.)

Fortunately, Leah-Carla Gordone has the skill and the forcefulness to elevate many of her songs into the realm of the truly, not facilely, inspirational. When this happens, it's clear that honesty really is the best policy.

Hear extended samples and purchase CD or MP3s.

Joal Rush, Imagination

Joal Rush's new seven-song EP is 21 minutes of dark-edged power pop. The darkness comes from his muted vocal quality and the seriousness of the lyrics; the power and the pop are in the densely layered guitars, keyboards, and rock rhythms. The title track is immensely catchy and "Stone" isn't far behind. "Lovely Day" starts out a little too shoegaze-y for my tastes, but it has a nice throaty instrumental break and it ended up winning me over. "Living a Lie" has a gritty, grungy '90s feel, while "Bleed" looks back to '80s synth-rock, and "You Are" is a nicely crafted 12/8 ballad. Rush's distinctive creative flavor holds it all together. This is solid stuff. Hear extended samples and purchase CD or MP3s.

Lawrence Blatt, Fibonacci's Dream

Here at the Indie Round-Up we don't cover a lot of music that would be eligible for an award from the New Age Reporter, but that just goes to show it's better to come at new music without preconceived notions. This is a lovely set of acoustic guitar instrumentals, supplemented by a variety of keyboard, bass, and percussion tracks. "New Age" or not, it's just nice music.

Blatt builds his compositions around mathematical ideas centered on the Fibonacci number sequence, but I'm actually just taking his word for that; the rhythms and melodies are pretty straightforward, and for the most part Blatt uses common guitar tunings. I found the program notes more distracting than fascinating (and pocked by disturbing misspellings, like "Bob Dillon"). Best to just stick with the music. Soothing without being boring, this would be a nice addition to one's instrumental music collection.

Hear extended samples.

Garry Segal, Taking Notes

Garry Segal applies a bit of country-rock twang to soulful, bluesy Americana tunes reminiscent of John Hiatt. Heavyweights like Jeff Pevar and the Seldom Scene's Phil Rosenthal contribute instrumentally, but it's Segal's slightly gravelly vocals and woodsy acoustic guitar that drive these well-crafted songs. "Two Broken People" sounds like a slowed-down "Tennessee Plates," and the drawling "Wrong Dogs" is also Hiatt-esque. "I Keep Drinkin'" has a more languid, jazzy, Randy Newman catch to it, while "Cartwheels" has a country-blues ease that reminds me of Little Toby Walker. "Wind Will Blow" and "Without Rain" betray a slight lyrical awkwardness that keeps the disc from perfection, but the latter has a beautiful melody, and overall the grass-rootsy world Segal creates in these seven songs is a most appealing one.

Hear extended samples and purchase CD or MP3s.

Sarah VonderHaar, Are You Listening Now

Sarah VonderHaar, a 21-year-old sometime America's Next Top Model contestant, has come out with a solid bubblegum-pop album. It's full of mostly good-natured pop-rockers along with a few emotional but still light-toned ballads, all topped by VonderHaar's sunny chirp. She co-wrote most of the songs, and according to her press package she's "a girl with a goal. She'd be happy to grab a stint on a TV show or a film, especially if she was able to play her own songs as a musician character." Wow, some people live in a completely different world from the one in which most of us toil. But if Kate Voegele can do it, why not this equally talented and attractive kid? Peppy optimism, catchy tunes, and good looks never go out of style, and why should they? Available for pre-order, or listen at Myspace.

Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Spitzer’s Folly, Sky Cries Mary, and Down the Line

We hear a lot of crappy music here at the Indie Round-Up. It's part of the process: we have to pan through a lot of sand to find the nuggets of gold. But before we get to this week's good stuff, bear with us while we explore the musical talents of Ashley Alexandra Dupré, the high-priced call girl at the center of the Eliot Mess.

Though briefly taken down after the scandal exploded, Dupré's MySpace page, with her song, "What We Want," is back up. It links to her page where you can – and where, apparently, over two million people did – purchase the song. (A second track has since been added.)

I understand people's prurient interest in listening to Dupré's track at MySpace. I did it myself. But that should be enough to satisfy simple curiosity. For the song to actually sell, wouldn't you think it should be a tiny bit – I don't know – good? But it's not. (Neither is the other song, the embarrassingly titled "Move Ya Body.") It's not "promising." It's not "halfway decent," as one music website called it. It's awful. Not halfheartedly awful, like the lamer work of her idol, Madonna, but MySpace hot babe awful. Tila Tequila awful.

And it's sad. Sad that someone with the troubled background that Dupré describes in her MySpace bio has been allowed to believe that the music she's put out is decent.

Not that it's more awful than some of the other stuff floating around on the Internet. There's always been crappy music, of course, but now that anyone with a computer and some time on their hands can record their crap and make it sound semi-professionally produced, musical "artists" are buzzing around as numerously, and as annoyingly, as locusts.

The whole Spitzer saga is sad, and the sub-story of the call girl with musical ambitions is no exception.

Now, with relief, let's turn to some good music.

Sky Cries Mary, Small Town

Since regrouping in 2004, trance-rockers Sky Cries Mary have been relatively seldom seen on stage, but their new CD Small Town shows the bicoastal sextet in top form. A lovely little acoustic guitar song, "Travel Light," breaks up the sequence of hypnotic wall-of-sound tracks, and the title track itself also features acoustic guitar. The "small town" refers to New York, various areas of which appear throughout the disc, which makes the album something of a portrait of NYC life. Who would have thought a band could make a compelling chorus with just the words "Here comes the 5 Train"? – but SCM could and did. The CD runs out of steam a few tracks before the end, but there is a lot of lush, muscular, feelingly executed, and well-written stuff here. Hear extended samples.

Down the Line, Home Alive

At a far distant point on the pop spectrum from SCM, we find the Chicago acoustic-rock quartet Down the Line, who are equally good at what they do, as this live album demonstrates. Having toured with the likes of Peter Frampton, America, Ben Folds, and Colin Hay, the band's road credentials are unquestionable; the tight musicianship demonstrated here clearly comes from logging a lot of stage time. But the band's two strongest points are their vocals and their songs. Assured and sometimes downright soulful lead vocals and harmonies enliven their catchy and extremely well-crafted songs.

The band is equally at home with smooth pop, like "I Don't Want to Sing" and their cover of "Everybody Wants to Rule the World"; riff-based rock like "Here I Am"; heartland rockers and barroom singalongs like "Martyr," "Dion," and "One Bottle of Bourbon"; a soul-inspired, falsetto-laced song like "Change Your Mind"; and even a well-turned ballad or two, like "A Boy Like Me," and "All Wrong," which brings to mind Clapton's "Old Love." And they do it all without electric guitars, keyboards, or a drum kit. The versatile Dan Myers, who covers harmonica, mandolin, and violin, has a good deal to do with the band's success at this. Besides those instruments, the band comes at us with just acoustic guitar, djembe, and electric bass. I don't often come across a live album worth multiple listens from a band I've never heard before, but this is one. Listen, buy.

Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Nackman, English, Means, Handcuffs, Soul Summit

Alex Nackman, Still Life Moves

It took me a while, but I finally thought of who Alex Nackman reminds me of: Peter Frampton. That dates me, of course, as does the fact that Don Henley's solo albums from the 80s came to mind when I listen to Nackman's more keyboard-dominated songs. But on a fundamental level, nothing much really changes in pop music – it's always about writing good songs and putting them across effectively, and Nackman does both, with slightly hoarse yet airy, friendly tones. Though his pop is shiny, there's a rootsy element to songs like "Banking on November," coming mostly from his lead guitar lines. But the dominant feel is shimmery, ideal for his hooky and well-crafted songs. The best of them are in the first half of the CD. "Wait For Me," "A Letter," and "Memento" are all superior, with the last resting on a modern thumping beat; "Banking On November" is a solid if obvious piano ballad, and more good ballads follow. The disc's later songs are less special, but taken as a whole there's a lot of really good work here – definitely worth checking out.

Aaron English, The Marriage of the Sun and the Moon

A rootsy thrum and psychedelic overtones animate Aaron English's progressive pop. There's a noticeable influence of classic big-thinking artists like the Police (and solo-artist Sting), Peter Gabriel, Crowded House, Led Zeppelin, and even (if you get right back to it) the Beatles, with a lot of "world beat" mixed in. As in all good pop, the best of these songs are full of hooks – some of them quite unusual, like the monotonous, growled chorus in "Like Smoke" and the multi-voiced bridge of "Anywhere-End-Up Street."

"Thin Ice," "Crossing the Desert, Crossing the Sea," and the title track are good examples of English's ability to construct ear-catching music and deliver it with feeling and style. His more contemplative songs, while less obviously memorable, create intriguing atmospheres. And he relieves the overall seriousness with a lighter touch just often enough, as in the sad-but-bubbly "God Bless You and Your Man." As a singer, English is not stupendous, but he's good enough, and the music on this disc is consistently fine. Listen at the website.

Steve Means, Rescue Me

Refreshing funk and soul grooves animate Steve Means's debut 7-song disc. His vocals have an unthreatening mildness, and yes, that's a nice way of saying they're on the weak side, but small, drippy vocals don't stop the plethora of limp-voiced African-American male singers in the R&B world, so why should we penalize a white singer for not being a belter? Means's voice is pleasing enough, and the chunky grooves and earthy, organ-fueled arrangements are the big attraction here anyway. He departs from the formula a little bit with the smooth pop of "Calm Down," though Benjamin Blake's solid bass still lays down the funk. "Woman Without a Name" is a dramatic and sweet jazz-waltz number that builds to a dense climax. Fans of John Mayer and Marc Broussard will probably dig this CD, as will Dave Matthews partisans and anyone to whom the term "soul-brewed pop," which Means uses for his music, strikes a chord.

The Handcuffs, Model for a Revolution

Here is some superfun new-new-wave girl-fronted rock from a Chicago duo that's gotten a heap of TV placements for its music and it's obvious why – they've got great songs that sound so, so hip despite dipping into the past. 70's hard-rock guitar, 80's new wave machine language, 90's dance-rock (think Elastica), and 00's pop crunch combine into a sound that's appealing and familiar but distinct and very, very catchy. I especially like The Handcuffs' more unexpected moments, like the melodic blast in the chorus of "All Shine On"; the mixture of guitar riffage and edgy girl-group style anthemizing on "Mickey 66"; and the super-simple form of "Sex and Violins." Even the less remarkable songs like "Peggy Moffitt" and "Don't Be Afraid" are glossy and fun. A few formulaic filler songs towards the end won't get in the way of one's overall enjoyment of this twelve-song CD. Highly recommended.

Various Artists, Soul Summit

Keyboardist Jason Miles got together a group of top musicians and singers to record this live session of great old soul tunes with full-on brassed-up arrangements. Steve Ferrone on drums and the Funk Brothers' Bob Babbitt on bass are just the foundation of the band's funky sounds. Jazz singer Maysa, blueswoman Susan Tedeschi, and Mike Mattison of the Derek Trucks Band share lead vocal duties. All the vocals are a little tamer than I might have expected, but on the whole it's a solid, if not amazing, set. "Shotgun," "What a Man," and "It's Raining" are among the highlights. Miles's own two tunes are plain-vanilla funk jams, and the James Brown medley, maybe not surprisingly, is less inspired than the rest – it just seems to be trying too hard. But Miles's arranging skills are sharp, and his taste in covers is excellent, with not one but two Dan Penn compositions. The man knows his soul music.

Round-Up Update: Back in July 2007 I praised singer-songwriter Tim Mahoney's "ear-tickling, wiry but honeyed pop rooted in McCartney and Squeeze" but wondered whether there were opportunities anymore for people to hear such great new indie pop. Well, it turns out he's become a veritable poster boy for the new era of music promotion. First, the retail chain Target selected his album for its Emerging Artists Program, displaying it on the endcaps of 500 stores in the Midwest. Then he won a contest called "Never Hide," sponsored by Ray-Ban, netting a two-page spread in Rolling Stone's 40th Anniversary special.

(And believe it or not, although I personally haven't laid eyes on a copy in years, I am informed by none other than NPR that people still read Rolling Stone. Unfortunately I can't provide a link to the NPR story – which was mostly about the alt-country magazine No Depression shutting down – because the NPR website is locking me out.)

To top it off, Mahoney has just won the pop category of the Durango Song Expo's "Write With a Hit-Maker" contest. Now, personally, I am too jaded and disgusted with the state of pop music to put any stock in songwriting contests – they almost never pick winners that seem worthy to me. But in this case, Durango obviously has. It's gratifying to see my opinions concurred with by some folks who can really do something to boost a talented artist's career besides writing some nice words. It doesn't happen often enough. Congrats to Tim Mahoney.

Music DVD Review: Fairport Convention: Maidstone 1970

Being the only known filmed footage of Fairport Convention's Full House lineup, this release is a bit more than a mere curiosity. However, its brevity and modest sound quality make it a must-have only for the most diehard of the band's fans.

With Sandy Denny out of the band, Fairport Convention in June 1970 consisted of Dave Swarbrick and a pre-facial hair Richard Thompson, with Dave Pegg on bass and mandolin, Dave Mattacks on drums, and Simon Nicol on rhythm guitar. The most famous, successful, and lasting band of the British folk-rock movement, the Convention was almost as well known for its shifting lineup as for its music.

The performances at this event are excellent, especially the multipart harmony vocals. But of the seven songs, only five are actually by Fairport; in the middle of the sequence are two songs by Matthews Southern Comfort, led by ex-Fairporter Iain Matthews. This band, one of many Matthews projects, would later record a hit version of Joni Mitchell's "Woodstock," but is otherwise mostly forgotten.

The total running time of the concert footage is only half an hour. From Fairport we get a jig and reel medley, followed by "Sir Patrick Spens" and "Now Be Thankful." Then Matthews Southern Comfort steps up with two disappointingly boring numbers. Fairport returns with "Flatback Caper" and "Jenny's Chickens & The Mason's Apron."

Besides the concert footage, there is one extra feature: a fifteen-minute interview with filmmaker Tony Palmer, who relates some background and trivia on how this film came to be made. Though the sound has been remastered, it's certainly not high fidelity. In fact, the shots of the crowd are probably more interesting than those of the band, although all of it is filmed and edited artfully.

The Maidstone Fiesta was truly, as Palmer describes it, a "family day out." Happy hippies dance to the faster tunes, but much of the audience consists of families with children. Watching the kids play, the hippies wander in and out of the woods, and the "normal" folks squint at the band is entertaining. You really get a flavor for how people looked, dressed, and interacted on a hot summer day in Kent in 1970.

Interrupting the set is a little Army helicopter show. Shades of "Puppet Show and Spinal Tap"? Not quite – Fairport was highly popular at the time – but it's funny anyway. Overall, it's an interesting set, but necessary only for huge Fairport Convention fans and completists; a minor addition to the historical record of the British folk-pop movement.