Music Review: Indie Round-Up – James, Jacobsen, Pagan, Cook, Scotty Don’t

Darrin James, Thrones of Gold

Darrin James distills hard-edged soul and craggy Americana into a redolent tincture that I’ve come to think of as New York City Melting Pot. His gravelly voice and confident, grungy guitar work lend themselves equally well to rock and blues (“Trivial”), old-timey piano-driven numbers (“Had Enough of Me”) and blue-eyed soul (“Hate That Word,” “Duct Tape”). There’s the obligatory, grim, Nick Cave-like folk ballad (“Herie”), but this one has a tumbling beat that takes it into original waters. Mandolin and ukulele feed the gentler folkiness of “Dusty Road,” while haunting organ and thudding upright bass give other songs the slightly eerie, organic quality that Americana producers strive for.

James produced the CD himself, with expert support from a set of fine musicians. It’s well-crafted all the way through. The only misstep is “Faith on the Run,” which would be an excellent song but for an uncomfortable resemblance to Tom Petty’s “Last Dance with Mary Jane.”

Its literate lyrics and subject matter are a big part of why Thrones of Gold stands as one of the best indie productions of the year so far. “Long lost, slightly sauced/And swingin’ from a vine/She was a dose of imperfection/Left me danglin’, out of time/I sold my disposition for a nickel and a dime/But now she’s had enough of me.” “Lucky Man,” on the other hand, expresses the eternal strangeness of the situation of the more successful male: “I’m a Lucky man/I know who I am/Never done the best that I can/So I’m Lucky that I got you.”

Politics and worldliness run through a number of songs. The subject of “Herie” “fought in the war for Iran/He had a dream of freer land/His family was murdered/In front of his eyes/But I’ve never seen him cry.” Meanwhile, you can almost picture the narrator of the title track sitting in a weirdly angular apartment deep in Brooklyn, watching war news on TV, wringing his hands, and dreaming:

I’m goin’ somewhere I’ve never been
My life here is at an end
I’ll be an honest man with a calloused hand
Goin’ where people don’t work so hard
No one’s gonna show me no business card
I’m outta here.

Available, with extended clips, at CD Baby.

Karen Jacobsen, Kissing Someone Else

Karen Jacobsen, an Australian singer-songwriter-pianist now based in (yawn) New York (everyone seems to come here sooner or later), has an excellent melodic sense, and her clear, unaffected voice actually deserves the often-overused term “angelic.” Her lyrics range from sinewy (“If I am so amazing why is everything so crazy?”) to overly cliched (“my life is a tomb of endless broken dreams”), but her innocent-sounding delivery and skill at choral arranging make the sentiment go down easier, and the strong melodies solidify the whole CD. Hooky pop-rockers like “So Fast”, “Afterthought,” and the title track, as well as ballads like “The River of My Life” and quirky, heavily arranged pieces like “Merry Go Round” all display these talents.

The key difference between Jacobsen and most pop singers is that she makes virtually no effort to sound sexy. This works in Christian rock, but what about in mainstream pop music? I guess we’ll find out. The real question is whether the twenty-first century wants its own Petula Clark. I don’t see why not. But then, do I look like a century? Don’t listen to me, listen to Karen Jacobsen. Hear songs and samples at her website and at CD Baby.

Chase Pagan, Oh, Musica!

Chase Pagan makes driving piano-powered rock, but it would be wrong to pigeonhole him with the likes of Keane, for his musical vision is considerably more original than any rock the major labels are putting out. Reaching for comparisons, one might say that if Radiohead, Kurt Weill, and The Mars Volta got together and made a CD of carnival music, you’d have Chase Pagan.

He doesn’t so much sing as wail and keen, gasping for breath, drifting up and down his tenor and falsetto range like Jeff Buckley with a pin stuck in him, supporting his heavy piano parts with grouchy guitars and punk-inpired bass and drums. “Push My Buttons,” a titanic groan of avant-garde pain, is the centerpiece of the CD. The songs draw on elements of arty grunge (“Time to Myself”), folk (“Paperboat”), twisted country (“Sailors March”), children’s music (“Spanish Tongue”), other styles, and things not known as they assault the ear like rusty bolts from the blue.

There’s quite a bit of dense, interesting chamber rock coming out these days. I think it’s the result of an information overload. Rock has gone through so many movements and iterations that new artists with unusual talent are forced first to drown in an excess of input, then to flee to the upper atmosphere with no skin on. With this CD Chase Pagan leaps to the forefront of this movement, chasing the shards of his own heretical rainbow.

You can download the accompanying EP, which contains some of the same tracks as the full-length CD, for free at his website, or hear some full tracks at his Myspace page. The EP also contains a cover of “Play the Game” by Queen, clearly another of Pagan’s inspirations.

Eli Cook, Miss Blues’es Child

Eli Cook is a twenty-year-old blues guitar wizard with genuine soul. His first acoustic recording consists of old and new songs played in raw, live-sounding arrangements with little more than Cook’s acoustic guitar and voice, plus banjo accompaniment by the stalwart Patrick McCrowell. Cook’s playing is a joy, and his original songs fit smoothly with his thoughtful covers of Robert Johnson, Son House, traditional songs and the like. Highlights include “Terraplane Blues,” “Goin’ Down South” (also recorded recently by one of my favorite new roots bands, Hillstomp), and the original title track.

Cook’s raucous take on “Fixin’ To Die” shows his mastery of incessant, scratchy electricity. By contrast, the satisfying, seven-minute-long “Trick Bag,” an original, demonstrates his sensitivity to the importance of empty space, something young performers don’t usually develop so early in their careers.

Cook sings with the mix of grimness and sensitivity that the material demands, but tries too hard to sound like an older man, putting too much force into his baritone. It makes him sound a little like one of the Eddie Vedder imitators who crawled onto the music scene in the 1990s. It doesn’t detract from the louder songs like “Fixin’ To Die,” but drags down the trance and country blues numbers.

Still, though he would be more convincing if he relaxed his voice some, Cook’s fine guitar work and top-notch material make this CD a very worthwhile listen. Eli Cook is a talent to reckon with.

Hear extended samples at CD Baby.

Scotty Don’t, Scotty Don’t

This twenty-minute EP rips through a quick survey of pop styles. “Back Porch” has a 1970s classic rock jam vibe. “When I Say” starts as a not very original reggae jam a la Bob Marley’s “Is This Love,” but then bursts into a punked-up ska-rock section that somehow makes perfect sense. “…Different Kind” suggests James Gang grooviness, and “Punk Rock Lullaby” is exactly that. “Everything’s Alright” goes back to the loose 70s flavor of the opening track, and the EP ends with a spacey-cool, acoustic miniature about being busted for smoking dope.

The trio is the original project of Badfish, a bizarrely successful Sublime tribute band. Given that genesis, it’s not surprising that their strong points include high quality songwriting, tight vocal harmonies, and a light touch. I don’t know to what extent the harmonies can be reproduced at a live show. But the band’s combination of bubbly enthusiasm and sneaky craft make their new project eminently worth checking out.

Hear several tracks at Scotty Don’t’s Myspace page.

Book Review: Blue Monday: Fats Domino and the Lost Dawn of Rock ‘n’ Roll by Rick Coleman

When Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans in 2005, much was made of the fact that the worst-hit neighborhoods were those inhabited mostly by poor blacks. But as the news unfolded, a specific question bounced through the country concerning one particularly rich and famous resident of the Lower Ninth Ward: “Where’s Fats?”

To be sure, not everyone knew Fats Domino was still alive in 2005. The 77-year-old musician had made relatively few appearances in recent decades, especially outside New Orleans. His numerous hits seemed to belong to a distant era. Though his seminal importance to rock and other forms of popular music had made him one of the original inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and despite having dominated the charts for a chunk of the last century, Antoine “Fats” Domino seemed to have been, if not forgotten, relegated to the sidelines of music history.

Katrina briefly shone the national spotlight on Domino as nothing had since President Bill Clinton awarded him the National Medal of the Arts in 1998. But Rick Coleman’s biography of the star, Blue Monday (now out in trade paperback), should play a more permanent role in preserving Domino’s legacy than any award or honor (or national disaster). It’s a fairly well written, densely researched account of the long and colorful life of one of popular music’s most influential and original talents.

In his Prologue, Coleman makes this very cogent point:

Historians…love to romanticize the stark noncommercial purity of downtrodden delta bluesmen in a commendable attempt at black cultural appreciation that nonetheless seems to rationalize the ghettoizing of many of rock ‘n’ roll’s more direct black fathers and mothers – the creators of rhythm & blues – into a historical no-man’s land. Thus, there has been vast documentation of the blues, but so little research on rhythm & blues that even major figures have disappeared into shadow. It is not a good sign of the preservation of African American heritage when by far the most popular r&b artists of the 1940s and the 1950s, Louis Jordan and Fats Domino, are today little known to most people.

The book makes a major contribution towards redressing that injustice.

Race is a huge part of the story. From the relative cultural comfort of the 21st century it’s easy to remark on how music has helped “bring us together.” We forget how recently the Civil Rights movement spawned violence in many parts of the country, and we may not be aware of how much racial prejudice music and musicians suffered during Fats Domino’s heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, and even into the 1970s.

Domino’s band often couldn’t get lodgings in the cities where they played. “They could buy gas at service stations but couldn’t use the restrooms.” Once audiences had started to mix, nervous promoters canceled concerts. Penetrating the pop (as opposed to the r&b) charts, even after it became possible for black artists, remained very difficult for many years. Though his music was relatively unprovocative (as compared with Little Richard’s, for example), riots attended a number of Domino’s concerts as white and black youths tried to dance together in the same halls.

“In stark contrast to his later image,” Coleman writes, “adults once…considered Domino a public menace…Domino’s shows were ground zero for racial integration.” Almost half the crowd was white at Alan Freed’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll Jubilee Ball” in New York City in January 1955. The lineup, including Domino, was all black, and indeed, Coleman reports that “over a year after Elvis Presley’s ascendance, the three major rock ‘n’ roll package tours were eighty percent black with all black headliners.”

Coleman’s greatest contribution with this book – even more than his documenting of Domino’s life – may be his detailed recounting of the nationally touring shows that featured Fats and other stars before and during the Civil Rights movement. “Before children were integrated in schools,” he writes, “the music integrated their souls.” Scholars and the public can learn much from the story of how music has helped unite a fractious society.

Rhythm & blues sowed the seeds of integration even in virulently racist areas. There was a curious turnabout, as whites now felt the bondage of both the ropes that [literally] segregated them away from the dance floor and their own repressive moral dictums, as they enviously watched the blacks dance.

“The most important thing about my music is the beat,” declares Domino, and Coleman has much to say about the abstract quality of European classical music vs. the physicality of the Africa-derived music that blacks had danced to for centuries and that flowered spectacularly in New Orleans in the 20th century. (New Orleans even got its nickname, the Big Easy, from musicians who knew it as a place where they could find work easily.)

“Emphatic rhythms, which were unheard on pop radio in the early 1950s, hijacked the hit parade within a year after Domino unleashed the monolithic ‘Ain’t That a Shame’ in 1955,” Coleman says, more or less accurately. I think he gives short shrift to the beat-heavy, big-band swing music of the 1940s, a trimmed-down version of which is quite evident in early R&B. But the fact that I feel justified in making such a criticism indicates how deeply Coleman delves into musicology in a book that is ostensibly a biography. The subtitle, Fats Domino and the Lost Dawn of Rock ‘N’ Roll, could have just as accurately (if less poetically) been The Life, Work and Times of Fats Domino.

The Italian-American engineer and studio owner Cosimo Matassa recorded rock ‘n’ roll’s first anthem, Roy Brown’s Good Rockin’ Tonight, in New Orleans in 1947. Two years later Domino recorded “The Fat Man” – a tamed reworking of “The Junker’s Blues,” a song about a dope fiend – at Matassa’s studio, and it became the first of his 35 Top 40 hits. Matassa also recorded Ray Charles, Dr. John, Little Richard, and many other important artists, and Coleman correctly shines a light on the engineer’s critical contributions, as well as those of Domino’s songwriting partner, arranger, and bandleader, Dave Bartholomew, and Lew Chudd, the record entrepreneur whose Imperial Records brought Fats’s music (and Ricky Nelson’s, interestingly) to the masses. He also gives the important radio DJs and concert promoters of the time their due, but Domino, Bartholomew, and Chudd form his story’s most essential triumvirate, and Fats himself comes through clearly as a brilliant entertainer, a musical innovator, and a shy, flawed, but in many ways admirable human being.

Coleman is good at describing to the non-musician what makes music do what it does. Maybe that’s because Fats was good at it too. “‘I used to play most all of my piano,’ says Domino. ‘That’s how I got that rock ‘n’ roll. Everybody used to use the 4/4 beat. Then we did that one-two-three – that added to the rhythm. The first song I recorded in 1949; that had the backbeat.” Coleman also repeatedly references Domino’s piano triplets, which have been ubiquitous in pop ballads ever since. And he backs up his claims for Domino’s influence by calling on a veritable cavalcade of stars. Paul McCartney took time off from recording Sgt. Pepper to attend a rare Domino concert in England. Elvis Presley made a point of calling Domino the real king of rock ‘n’ roll. Leonard Cohen says Fats’s version of “Blueberry Hill” is his “all-time favorite song.” Art Neville: “Fats could burn a piano, and Fats had a vocal sound that everybody loved. I ate, drank and slept Fats Domino.” Bob Marley: “My earliest influence in music comes from Fats Domino time.” And on and on. Point made.

As if to counterweigh the arc of Domino’s hugely successful career as a musician (and indirectly as an anti-apartheid campaigner), Coleman is also forced to write of the many members of Domino’s retinues and bands who died of drug overdoses or met other sad and premature ends. Death after death confronts the reader, who eventually learns that as a group, black musicians who tried to take their music to the masses during the age of segregation paid a far steeper price than exclusion from restrooms or pop charts.

In spite of his repeated personal losses, Fats Domino forged on. How he reacted to these events, we must infer from third-person reporting. The book doesn’t get deep into its subject’s psyche. The author had access to Domino and many of the important figures in his life, but the star remained (and remains) a very private person. It will be up to future biographers to determine, if they can, whether Domino simply isn’t much of a soul-searcher, or is just intensely private. Coleman describes Domino’s flaws (philandering, gambling, excessive drinking) but doesn’t give us much sense of the star’s own perspective on them. One gets the feeling that despite Coleman’s access, he wasn’t able to crack the shell.

Given that limitation, he’s still given us a crackling good story. Fats Domino’s influence should never again be obscured or downplayed. Equally important, his “big beat diplomacy” helped set the races on a path towards peace that continues to this day. As Coleman so aptly puts it, “America, which in prior centuries had figurately cannibalized Africa, was now suddenly shocked to discover it was what it ate.”

Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Barnes & Barnes, Wild Man Fischer, And Some “Normal” Music

Collector’ Choice Music Reissues: Barnes & Barnes’ Voohaba and Wild Man Fischer’s Nothing Scary

Rejoice, aficianados of outsider music. Prick up your pointed little ears, Dr. Demento fans. Collectors’ Choice Music has reissued three classics of weirdness: Barnes & Barnes’s first album, Voobaha (with gushers of bonus tracks), and Wild Man Fischer’s Pronounced Normal and Nothing Scary which were produced – cajoled into existence, one might say – by the aforementioned duo.

Larry “Wild Man” Fischer is a bipolar paranoid schizophrenic with a disturbingly entertaining take on the world, and songwriting talent to go with it. Frank Zappa recorded him in the late 60s (Fischer references Zappa in a couple of his Nothing Scary monologues) but he was too unstable to have a consistent career even as a wacky weird guy.

However, in the early 1980s, Barnes & Barnes (Robert Haimer and Lost In Space’s Bill Mumy), of “Fish Heads” and “Boogie Woogie Amputee” fame, took on the challenge of tracking Fischer down, recording more of his vocals, and putting musical tracks to them.

Some of Fischer’s output in the new sessions came in the form of shouts and monologues, but many were real songs. Fully conceived pieces like “All I Think About Is You,” “The Rain Song,” “Outside the Hospital” and “Love Love Love In Everything You Do” show a serious, original and actually quite mainstream songwriting ability. Snippets like “Ping Pong Ball Head,” “One of a Kind Mind,” and “Bad Leg” do the same on a smaller scale. That distinguishes Fischer from certain other, nowadays better-known outsider artists like Wesley Willis. It’s no wonder Zappa took an interest in Fischer.

Unlike with most “sane” songwriters, Fischer’s raw thoughts too are fascinating, which is no doubt why Haimer and Mumy captured the selections here that are not, strictly speaking, musical. Fischer’s take on the music business is especially wry, bursting out in various monologues and harangues.

And a truly terrible business it is. I don’t think Haimer and Mumy really sought to “make it big” in the music biz, though they put out quite a few albums both on Rhino (Fischer’s label too) and elsewhere, some of which deviated from their successful novelty formula. I suspect if they had tried too hard to go mainstream they might have spoiled the senses of humor that made them stars of the Dr. Demento show.

I can almost guarantee that you’ve heard “Fish Heads” even if you’ve never listened to Dr. Demento or heard of Barnes & Barnes. You might even have seen the video. If not, do it now, then come back.

Are you back? Great. Now all that’s left to say is that this reissue of Voobaha with its many bonus tracks is a treasure trove of twisted humor. Horror fans will dig “Cemetery Girls” with its samples from “It’s a Good Life,” the classic, terrifying Twilight Zone episode in which six-year-old Mumy turned cornfields into places of terror for a whole generation. “Party in My Pants,” “Three Drunk Newts,” “Sewey Hole” – they’re all here. Yup. All here. For you. To listen. To. Go ahead. Eat them up. Yum.

Scott Blasey, Travelin’ On

Now onto some regular stuff. The new solo CD by Scott Blasey, lead singer of The Clarks, has a warm, intimate sound that’s folksier than the band’s but boasts the same smooth, sturdy, heartland-pop songwriting that’s characteristic of the Clarks’ strong catalog.

Blasey gives his soulful side a good workout with “Sweet Mystery,” “Little Sofia,” and a version of the Sam Cooke classic “Bring It On Home To Me.” (The latter, interestingly, is less convincing than Blasey’s own soul ballads.) The catch in Blasey’s voice – the soul – has always been an important part of the Clarks’ appeal, and it extends to his solo work.

“Time To Go” is a powerful pop anthem. “See You Around” and “Church of the Open Highway” feature airy harmonies that give a hint of psychedelic pop. On the latter, guitarist Chris Holt, who elsewhere on the album contributes George Harrison-like guitar solos, references Patty Loveless’s 1991 hit “Hurt Me Bad (In a Real Good Way”), pointing up the country elements in Blasey’s heartland sensibility. Bubblegum pop (“Be Your Man”) and original folk songs (“Baby, You’re My Saving Grace” and the title track) also form part of the landscape.

The CD is treat from a savvy and talented veteran. There’s a free download of the nice piano mix of “Time To Go,” and a video of “San Antonio,” at Blasey’s website.

Mary Karlzen, Yours To Keep

Like the Clarks, Mary Karlzen is a major label veteran who is now/again happily independent. But her new CD disappoints. Much of it has an uptempo Americana feel, tastefully executed by a studio band that includes bassist Garry Tallent of the E Street Band and Wilco’s Ken Coomer on drums. Unfortunately, blandness dominates. Karlzen’s voice doesn’t have enough oomph to carry the rockers, which mostly sound generic anyway. The snappy “Find Yourself” rises above the sameness, a little, and “Stupid or Something” is strong and catchy. The two covers – Paul Westerberg’s “Skyway” and a duet with Matthew Ryan on Tom Waits’s “Heart of Saturday Night – are nice.

Two videos, including one for “Stupid or Something,” can be seen here.

Ben Godwin, Skin and Bone

Speaking of Tom Waits, there’s a little of him in Ben Godwin, a Londoner transplanted to New York. With a gritty voice that’s half Joe Cocker and half Ian Anderson, Godwin belts out a set of theatrical, jazz-inflected tunes inspired by New York City life. By turns soulful (“Constantly Reminded”), Bacharachian (“Paper Thin Walls”), gentle (“Castaway”) and Brelian (“Outsize Shoes”), Godwin’s songs are as old-fashioned as the intelligibility of the lyrics he pipes out with his thick baritone. “Poverty’s a crime in the poorhouse / And the punishment is life / The lucky ones work in the slaughterhouse / And the rest go under the knife,” he bellows in the title track, where you should also listen for Julie LaMendola’s eerie saw-playing.

“We’ll sweat our hearts out / Fill a rich man’s cup in the New World City / We’ll break our backs building monuments to the sky / Catch our fingers in the teeth of the machinery,” he cries like Bertholdt Brecht and Kurt Weill in “New World City,” but we’ll also “make a new religion out of rusted cars / Our televisions, and our hollow stars.” “So very precious,” cries the Everyman of Godwin’s tales, “but we’re only worth a song in the New World City.” But the value of a song, as Godwin certainly knows, is boundless.

Echoing Jacques Brel’s “The Bulls,” “New World City” ends with a litany of places, cities all over the world where people struggle. But unlike the Brel song, which leaves us with its grim battlefield images, Godwin’s “La la la” chorus returns for a final affirmation of life amidst the dirt and grime.

This music is serious, fun, and definitely different. You can hear extended samples at CD Baby.

Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Snider, Tillis, Hammond Jr.

Todd Snider, Peace, Love and Anarchy

The new disc by Todd Snider, heir apparent to John Prine’s corner of the Americana music universe, is billed as “a Set of Rarities, B-Sides and Demos.” But since Snider himself is a rarity and a b-side, what’s the diff?

Normally Snider’s loose, jagged sound is more or less carefully built up in the studio. Here it’s mostly left raw. Many of the tracks have just guitar and vocals. A couple are early versions of songs that later got fancier production; others are true rarities, or items that slipped through the cracks. But each one has at least one pearl of value inside. In fact, this CD has transformed me from a lukewarm Todd Snider fan into a big Todd Snider fan. It reminds of when I first heard Roseanne Cash’s 10-Song Demo, which revealed something more fundamental to me about the artist’s sensibility than I had heard in polished studio recordings.

“Polished” isn’t a word one is inclined to use in the same sentence as “Todd Snider,” and that’s as it should be. This rough-edged set has spare rockers (“Barbie Doll,” “Cheatham Street Warehouse,”) country blues (“Deja Blues”), love songs (“Missing You,” “Feel Like I’m Falling In Love,”), half tongue-in-cheek country numbers inspired by Prine or Jerry Jeff Walker (“Old Friend,” “Combover Blues”), and even a gospel-soul tune “I Will Not Go Hungry.” “Some Things Are” could be a lost Garcia-Hunter number.

The title track from the 2004 release East Nashville Skyline didn’t make it onto that CD. Now we have it:

“Something good comes along / Then it’s gone / Kind of like Phoenix Radio / We used to listen, and where did it go / It went off of the air so that more Sheryl Crow could come on.” Harsh. But – yeah.

The spoken-word “From A Rooftop” has more about the singer’s love affair with East Nashville – and we all have an East Nashville, wherever we may live. “Our skyline – it ain’t very high. But we love it.” Me too, Todd, me too. I feel the same way about Brooklyn. At least for now.

“Old Friend, Old Friend / God knows where we’re goin’ / I guess half the fun’s not knowing where we’ll wind up in the end.”

Pam Tillis, Rhinestoned

Now it’s time for polished.

On Pam Tillis’s first CD for Stellar Cat, her new, personal label, the country star, working with co-producers Matt Spicher and the legendary Gary Nicholson, has exercised complete creative control. The result is a worthy follow-up to It’s All Relative, her 2002 tribute to her father, Mel Tillis. The new disc sounds gorgeous but not overdone, with good songs, which, though by a variety of songwriters, all somehow sound as if they were written specifically for Tillis’s creamy soprano. That’s a tribute not only to the songwriters but to the singer’s assured and always honest delivery.

A lot of Nashville CDs contain only a couple of good songs, with the rest there just so the friends and crew of the label or the singer can make some money from writing credits. On this CD the proportion is reversed, with only a few forgettable tracks getting in the way of the good stuff. The Dixieland-inspired Crazy By Myself (by Matraca Berg) and the spirited, spiritual “Over My Head,” which features Jim Hoke on pennywhistle, are both heart-lighteners. Gloomy heartbreak checks in with Leslie Satcher’s “Something Burning Out,” but “Train Without A Whistle” and the masterful “Someone Somewhere Tonight” better show off Tillis’s ability to pull the heartstrings without seeming manipulative.

The intense story-song “Bettin’ Money On Love” with its recited verses is unusual for Tillis, but she pulls it off with aplomb. “Band in the Window” is an obvious but sprightly tribute to the obscure bands who play the honky-tonk bars right in the shadow of the Opry. In the sweet “Down By the Water” Tillis comes close to the 1970s “hippie country” vibe which, according to her notes, she wanted to suggest with this album. Mostly the CD doesn’t do that. What it does, though, is give us some real country music, unlike some of the other styles the singer has tried on over the years. The modern (slick, if you will) production remains tasteful, not getting in the way of the singer or the songs. And it holds together as an album – you can listen to and enjoy the whole thing through.

Recommended for country fans and all lovers of delicious singing.

Albert Hammond, Jr., Yours To Keep

The guitarist and singer/songwriter Albert Hammond, Jr., best known as a member of The Strokes, released his first solo CD last Fall in the U.K. It’s out now in North America and definitely worth a listen.

Not Strokes-like, Hammond’s pastel-pop songs and arrangements dab together several strains of pop-rock into a landscape that’s bright and extremely accessible, yet original enough to be an interesting place to spend some quality time. He and his team – producer Greg Lattimer and engineer Gus Oberg, plus a number of guest artists including Sean Lennon – crunch together strains of Sgt. Pepper, Tommy James, 70s glam, 80s precision, and the chamber pop of the 90s and today.

Hammond’s lead vocals are modest but confident, and he has full-fledged songwriting skills. The lyrics don’t make much sense, but it doesn’t matter at all, because the drama and the pleasure is in the music. When you do pay attention to the lyrics, they seem to wink at you, and you feel that you’re in on a joke. From “Hard To Live In The City”:

There’s something about you that I couldn’t tell
And you were always crazy
And I don’t like that
There’s something about you that I knew so well
To all those questions I have no answers
I wish that I could sit in the sun

Me too, Albert, me too.

Like the Animators, but a little more lighthearted and poppy, Hammond proves that the artistic integrity of adult rock and pop is as strong as ever, with new generations of musicians continuing to expand the field. It’s hard to pick favorite songs here, but a few of mine are the swinging “Call An Ambulance,” the John Lennon-inspired “Blue Skies,” and the falsetto-fueled, bell-like “In Transit.”

The anxious, insistent guitar tones of “101” and the tense “Scared,” with its melodic echo of “Cruel To Be Kind” and psychedelic chorus, help give the largely sunny CD some bite. It closes with two well-chosen covers, Guided By Voices’ “Postal Blowfish” and the Buddy Holly chestnut “Well All Right,” which serve as bookends to the vast shelf of pop from which Hammond draws his inspiration.

Highly recommended.

Hear some tracks at his Myspace page.

Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Larsen, Heyman, Everybody Else, Assembly, Brooklyn Rep

Olav Larsen & the Alabama Rodeo Stars, Love’s Come To Town

This charming set of Americana-by-way-of-Norway hits all the right notes, so to speak. The band brightens up Larsen’s traditional sounding, but occasionally quirky, roots-rock and country songs with homespun energy. The musicians bed the songs in endearingly shambling arrangements that perfectly complement the songwriter’s jaunty, somewhat wobbly vocals.

This band of Europeans has thoroughly absorbed, digested and done right by Americana music, while giving it just enough of their own flavor to make it interesting. The songs range from Dylan-esque wistfulness (“May the Sun Always Shine”) to bluegrass shenanigans (“Ain’t Got Time”); from a splash of dixieland and ragtime (“Atomic Bombs and Wine”) to sweet, shimmering rambles (“Love’s Come to Town,” “Like Daisies”); and from the hillbilly gospel of “The Sweet Saviour’s Arms” to the grim, cautionary “Unhappy/Dreamer”:

I never thought that you would leave this town behind.
Your unpredicted departure almost destroyed my mind.
You didn’t even say goodbye to your friends: unkind.
I guess there’s something bigger going on this time.

The slightly off-kilter lyrics – perhaps from English not being Larsen’s native language – has a paradoxical effect of making them seem sly and heartfelt at the same time. How could anyone resist this: “When you say jump, I’ll jump for you baby. / When you say run, I’ll run for you too. / I’ll do anything you want me to / And you can call me baby!”

Highly recommended for country-rock and Americana fans. Hear some full tracks at their Myspace page.

Richard X. Heyman, Actual Sighs

One-man rock band Richard X. Heyman’s new release is a blast from power-pop’s past and a new work at the same time. The CD is packed with twenty songs, the first fourteen of which are new recordings of old compositions – most written in the early 80s – that never got recorded before. The last six are a reworking of the EP Actual Size, which Heyman put out himself, to critical acclaim but with limited distribution, in 1986.

It’s hard to imagine any Heyman fan not being over the moon with this collection, or any fan of rock, classic rock and power-pop not finding much to like. No doubt, Heyman’s musical vision is a little old-fashioned, but mainly in the sense that it is a powerful, emotional tapestry of male rock without whininess. Heyman fits together big collections of instruments and tracks – all played by him, except for the strings and horns – into ever-evolving, mind-grabbing, crisp but not cluttered arrangements – the rock equivalent of what a great classical or Broadway orchestrator does.

The greatest studio bands of past decades – like Yes, Led Zeppelin, Crowded House, Smashing Pumpkins, and of course the Beatles and George Martin – could orchestrate pop in that way. Most rock bands and producers nowadays, too worried about trying to sound like somebody else, shy away from the interesting.

Heyman doesn’t have that problem. He’s an original. The opening orchestral theme of “Kenyon Walls” (it suggests Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir,” but played on real horns and strings instead of a Mellotron), leads straight into the pounding, multi-voiced chorus. Right away we’re introduced to Richard X. Heyman the confident guitarist and piano player, but above all (or behind all) the frighteningly good drummer. (This is borne out in live performance; it’s worth seeing anyone he’s backing up on the skins.)

If there was any doubt, the thunderous drum intro of the fist-thumping “Stockpile” blasts it away. Think Georgia Satellites on speed. Heyman does more things on the drums in these two and a half minutes than most drummers do in their band’s whole set.

There’s no let-up in the midtempo “All In the Way You Found Me,” with its rueful Byrds/Petty chord changes, rich pop harmonies, and throaty organ solo. The deceptively simple-sounding “Winter Blue” harks back to art-rock. If you’re old enough you might remember when Genesis toned its histrionics way down, but hadn’t yet made the move to machine-pop. Such references aren’t out of place with Heyman, who’s been writing songs since 1969, though his major label period was twenty years later.

More highlights: the caffeinated, drum-drowned rave-up “Twelve Boxcars and I Still Have the Blues”; the groovy, Zombies-like harmonies of “In a Boxcar”: and the grandiose marching lines of “A Fine Line.” And that’s only on the first half. Small gems like the ballad “Written All Over My Face,” together with ambitious ones like “The Gazing Moon,” poke out of this overstuffed CD’s “Side B” like fighting limbs. It’s too much to listen to straight through, actually. On the other hand, Heyman is one of the few artists who can put out a twenty-song disc without ever succumbing to a flaccid or disinterested vibe.

With all the sound and fury, not every song here will appeal to everyone. But it’s certainly fair to say that smart rock doesn’t get much better than this.

Hear extended clips at CD Baby.

Everybody Else, Everybody Else

Speaking of power-pop, it ain’t just old-timers like Richard X. Heyman bringing the joyful noise. Score another one for The Militia Group for their pickup of L.A. trio Everybody Else.

Mixing Squeeze-like pop sophistication with bubblegum, then spiking it with raunchy guitar, the band has hit on a sweet formula for their debut full-length CD. There’s nothing terribly original here, but with their smart use of pop conventions and powerful knack for hooky melodies, Everybody Else has no need to reinvent the wheel – they just have to set it on fire, and they do, with songs like the infectious, anti-love callout “Meat Market” and the Matchbox 20-like “I Gotta Run.” “In Memoriam” is an irresistible nostalgia trip, while “Born To Do” grinds out the jagged edge of love, with choked-off chords evoking the sinister humor of the Toadies. “Rich Girls, Poor Girls” is funny, imagistic and touching all at the same time:

the rich girls see the curving of the earth
when flying over kansas city
but ice cream music floats along the hills
of where we’re living
and those poor girls know the feeling of
the playground bench with darkness bleeding
like a palm tree, dreaming

i love you even though you got no dough

rich girls, poor girls
i just can’t decide…

The fine songwriting continues throughout the CD – there isn’t one weak song. “The Longest Hour of My Life” sounds like a lost 1970s pop hit, while “Button for Punishment” shows the band can also do a memorable acoustic ballad. The CD actually closes with one of its strongest tracks: the electronica-flavored “Alone in the World” is the kind of song Duran Duran might have had a smash with.

An impressive, spirited debut, highly recommended.

Assembly of Dust, Recollection

Assembly of Dust is the current project of Reid Genauer (Strangefolk, Phil Lesh and Friends). The band tours on the jam band circuit, but the best songs on this, its third studio album, have roots in 1970s country-rock with a progressive glint, as much Steve Miller and Steely Dan as Grateful Dead.

Arena-rock hooks, colorful, imagistic lyrics, emotional lead guitar from Adam Terrell, and shimmery piano work from Nate Wilson (who co-writes the songs with Genauer) are all here, but the most distinctive characteristic of the set is a sunny disposition. Even the songs with serious or sad lyrics are still move-your-body music.

The band front-loads the CD with its best songs. The jumpy, mid-tempo “Grand Decision” evokes The Band (think “Ophelia”) and a bit of Boz Scaggs, while later in the CD, “Bootlegger’s Advice,” which slows that groove down, isn’t as strong a song. The bracing “Telling Sue” cheerfully adapts its soaring hook from the Dead’s “U.S. Blues,” while “Truck Farm” aims for a similar, simple, goofy grandeur but doesn’t quite hit the mark. Maybe Genauer just sounds too nice to represent the kind of guy who’s set a fire in anger after buying a lemon vehicle.

“Zero to the Skin” and “Whistle Clock” are fully realized works. They’re successful because they’re not trying to be anything but what they are, and because their music and lyrics evoke the gritty, poetic, somehow-we-survive American heartland spirit.

You may serve them roses.
You may serve their delight.
But when the working day closes,
I sing you sweetly goodnight.

The climax comes in the chorus of “Samuel Aging,” a nova of a song about a writer’s tragic life that could be any of ours.

Well he raked his eyes and read what he had laid down.
His tongue was dry, his eyes were moist and red.
Exhausted from the work and went and laid down,
and the writing read and the writing read.
Run walk or stagger to your old life’s hanging.

Next comes “40 Reasons,” a pretty but not entirely convincing attempt at Neil Young’s sort of minor-key pathos. The rather hollow “The Honest Hour” is notable mostly for inheriting the language of its guitar solo from Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer.” And on the evidence of the aimless “Walking on Water,” “Desperado”-style ballads aren’t the Assembly’s strong suit.

Even the less successful songs have well-considered lyrics and a sensitive soul. But what we have here is an excellent band delivering half of an excellent album.

Hear some full tracks at their Myspace page.

Brooklyn Repertory Ensemble, Pragmatic Optimism

You don’t hear too much ensemble jazz any more, and when you do it’s usually in an educational context (meaning, most of us who aren’t in school never experience it). For one thing, it’s awfully expensive to gather and rehearse a big jazz band. The musicians are hard to herd because they’re always off scrabbling for the next paying job, which is usually with a smaller combo, or backing up a pop singer, or teaching.

Notwithstanding these difficulties, the resourceful drummer and composer Wade Barnes has expanded his highly regarded 1990s group, the Brooklyn Four Plus One, into a powerhouse seventeen-piece ambassador for what he accurately calls “America’s classical music,” and done it in an unusual way: by incorporating the band as a 501c3 nonprofit organization.

Fear not, however – far from being a dry, academic exercise in preservation, the B.R.E.’s new CD (and, I would imagine, its concerts) is living, breathing jazz. Precisely energized ensemble playing, sophisticated Ellingtonian arrangements, quirky solos, un-everyday instruments (vibes; tuba and euphonium; a French horn and a mellophone), and buttery vocals from Tulivu-Donna Cumberbatch add up to a redolent hour-plus of satisfying music.

The band’s spare take on “Blowin’ in the Wind” opens the CD straightforwardly, deep brass pulsing. Delicate solos from pianist John Nam and guitarist Yoshiki Miura, along with Cumberbatch’s semi-operatic vocals, turn the folk classic into a meditative cloud. The other familiar tunes are a smooth partially sung “Stolen Moments” featuring clarinetist McDonald Payne, and “Body and Soul.”

Subtle polyrhythms underpin Barnes’s own “Passive Volition,” which features vibraphonist William Ware, III among others. The leader’s other compositions incline towards the meditative – they have titles like “The Power of Feeling” and “The Power of Thought” – and do not feature vocals, but there’s always something on the surface to tickle the ear and Barnes’s gossamer drumming driving everything along. “Little Big Sis,” in 5/4 time, builds into a pentatonic scale rave-up and may be my favorite track in spite of its melodic (though not rhythmic) simplicity.

Hear extended clips of this unusual set at CD Baby.

Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Lights, Heavies, Seymour, Spanic Boys, Cunniff

We’re all over the place this week, musically speaking. So to avoid getting us all dizzy with mood swings, I’ve put these selections in order starting with the darkest and progressing to the most upbeat. It works out nicely, because if you only have time to read one of this week’s reviews, let it be that of…

The National Lights, The Dead Will Walk, Dear

Looking at the song titles on the debut CD from this Virginia trio – like a song called “O, Ohio,” and the traditional “The Water Is Wide” – I expected folk music.

But no. It wasn’t the old “The Water Is Wide” that everyone in the world seems to have covered. And, although the CD has a hushed, subdued sound, plenty of acoustic guitar, and no drums, it’s not folk music.

Then again, maybe it is. Certainly in the “it’s all folk music” sense. Or if you look at the whole ten-song, 28-minute opus as one long American Gothic murder ballad. Because every song is about hurting and dying. Beautiful women or children are killed with shotguns, or drowned – one way or another enholed. Often there’s water. Sometimes the singer is alone, sometimes not. Sometimes he sees the victim as deserving of her fate:

We’ll wait ’til dark to dig that hole outside
Big enough for you to fit inside
All those hearts you broke are still beating
This is helping, honey this is healing

Other times she seems innocent:

There’s a hole in the river
Where they put your body down…
I’ll hold in my bones
That sweet little heart of yours
It’s not big enough to beat for two anymore
I’ll grow for us both

The creepy thing is the way these doomy lyrics are set, not to death-metal grinding sounds, but quite the opposite – in gently rolling little songs, miniatures really, sung in grey, half-whispered tones by songwriter/mastermind Jacob Thomas Berns. Shades of Sufjan Stevens, ghosts of Nick Cave.

Berns’s sparse guitars are padded by multi-instrumentalist Ernest Christian Kiehne, Jr. (Ernest Christian, get it? Oh wait, that’s his real name…), who adds more guitars, some bass, and lots of keyboards, including weighty organ parts on several songs. And the icing on this devil’s food cake: smooth, eerie harmony vocals by Sonya Cotton. Descended, I imagine, from Cotton Mather.

There’s no need to mention which songs have what, though. This CD plays as a single sad, strangely pretty, discreetly paranoid, glittery-eyed work. Of which you can get a good taste at their Myspace page. Go. But watch your back. For “look at what we’ve become/A black heart and a loaded gun.”

Black Diamond Heavies, Every Damn Time

This duo of self-described “vagrants/citizens of the world” makes gruff, scratchy, lo-fi blues and soul music like there was nothing else they ever wanted to do. It ain’t pretty, but it’s got balls. Like Hillstomp, they make a big sound for two people, but it’s dark and electrified and loud.

While his left hand covers the bass parts on a bass keyboard, singer John Wesley Myers pounds a distorted sound out of his Fender Rhodes electric piano with his right, which provides the hoarseness that hard music normally gets from guitars. On vocals he sounds as much like Howlin’ Wolf as any white man I’ve ever heard, particularly on “Might Be Right” and the frenzied opener “Fever In My Blood.” The Doors – another keyboard-heavy band that (live, anyway) relied on keyboard bass – come to mind when listening to “Leave It In The Road,” and there’s an element of punk fury in song titles like “White Bitch” and “Guess You Gone And Fucked It All Up.”

Myers’s growling might get a little monotonous, but its combination of anger and humor keeps the CD fun. Meanwhile, Van Campbell’s half-crazed drums and splashing cymbals fill out the rest of the sonic color-by-number.

An exception in several ways, the eight-minute opus “All To Hell” adds a bass player, a Hammond B3 player, and horns. Its severe, gritty soulfulness makes it a standout. But the more modest “Stitched In Sin” proves the duo can also put across an affecting ballad without reinforcements. Maybe there’s something dense and scary in the water of Port Arthur, TX – Myers’s hometown, and Janis Joplin‘s.

Hear a couple of tracks at their Myspace page or their band website.

Erin Sax Seymour, Good Girl

Erin Sax Seymour’s new seven-song set is a mix of old-time country and modern country-rock. Three tracks were recorded live with her band, the rest with producer Stephen Joseph and other studio musicians. Her voice has a little-girl side that suggests the Dolly Parton school of country singing; she also unloads stronger timbres when needed, like in the waltz ballad “What You See In Me.”

The songwriting is a little maddening. The CD sounds gorgeous, but the dry syntax of Seymour’s lyrics tend to distract attention from her gutsy melodies and vividly emotional music. It makes me think of some other artists, also with female vocals, whom I’ve written about recently – such as Laura Vecchione and the sadly dormant Great Unknowns – artists who make music in a roughly similar style, but who are more in touch with the raw side of language. Now and then, Seymour’s tricky lyrics come across as sharp and clever: “Was the letting go worth the getting over?” But more often, her catchy up-country numbers like “Peace Tonight” as well as her pretty, sensitive singer-songwriter fare (like the title track, which sounds like something off of Dire Straits’s Making Movies) suffer from a scarcity of strong words. The musically soulful “Substitute” declares rather meaninglessly, “Ain’t no substitute for a broken heart/And drawing that line is so damn hard,” and culminates weakly with “Somewhere between your heart and mine/Lies the answers [sp] that we’ve been denying.”

This doesn’t prevent me from respecting Seymour’s talent, or liking the music. It’s just that following the lyrics cuts down on that enjoyment.

The band on the three Dixielandish live tracks is so energetic and fun, and Seymour’s singing so sprightly, that after three listens they’ve emerged as my favorite tracks. “Signs How This Ends” and “The Gift” are especially good.

Hear MP3s at Erin Sax Seymour’s Myspace page.

Spanic Boys, Sunshine

On the heels of the new Bill Kirchen CD comes another Telecaster blast, this one from the father-and-son team known as the Spanic Boys. Their new, heavily Beatles-influenced set focusses as much on the duo’s close vocal harmonies as on their dueling Fender guitars. Like many family singers, their melded voices can sound almost supernaturally in synch, rather like the Everly Brothers, but they do more sliding around, which makes for slightly weird effects.

Many of the songs – all written by the Spanics – seem expressly written to feature their vocal harmonizing, sometimes at the expense of other important aspects of songwriting, like dramatic effect and hookiness. Songs that transcend that limitation include the slow waltz “What Will You Do,” whose harmonies suggest both the early Eagles and the Byrds’ version of “Satisfied Mind.”

“Secret” sounds like a lost, slow Beatles track if Robbie Kreiger had been invited to play a guest guitar solo. There’s not much to the song itself, but the sound is like a slow burn from the underworld. The title track is essentially a tribute to specific Beatles sounds and songs, especially “Rain,” to which it might be construed as an answer. As we reviewers can get tired of saying, you could do a lot worse than to use the Beatles as a touchstone, if you can get away with it. The Spanic Boys aren’t remotely the songwriters the Beatles were, but their expression of the deeply layered mid-period Beatles guitar sound is sure.

Our heroes can’t entirely avoid coming across a bit academic. But at least it’s the Ivy League. And it’s not all Beatles all the time. My favorite tracks are “Bigger Fool Than Me,” a two-minute snarl of 1960s rock and roll power, and the raw garage-rocker “Broken Wheel.”

“Didn’t Love You Anyway” is hard-edged country rock of the sort those pesky Beatles coopted decades ago for songs like “Dr. Robert,” and the CD closes with the jittery, bass-and-drums-driven “You Don’t Worry Me,” which effectively grafts the Spanics’ trademark, lazily moving harmonies onto a fast, insistent beat.

MP3 clips here.

Jill Cunniff, City Beach

The sunny side of New York City life peeks through the froth in this, the solo debut of Luscious Jackson’s Jill Cunniff. Described by Cunniff as a “mood record made to bring the beach to caged up city dwellers,” the CD lives up to that in several early songs and two at the end. The light, bright, sophisticated arrangements are like bubblegum with beats. But I enjoyed the CD a lot more at a modest volume at home while concentrating on something else, than I did in the car, where I want my music loud and ear-important. Want edgy? Go elsewhere. Want nice? This is nice. Maybe, for some Luscious Jackson fans, a little too nice.

There are some standouts. Cunniff goes deep in “Warm Sound,” copping the tune from “Horse With No Name” and layering it on top of a thick atmosphere and syrupy beat drawn from Tori Amos’s “Cornflake Girl.” The baubles “Eye Candy” and “Exclusive” are tangy, catchy melodic pop – if you can ignore the lame lyrics.

“Love Is A Luxury” has a big build that Cunniff’s modest vocal chops don’t quite measure up to. But “Future Call,” an intense little ska-tinged rocker, gets the blood going some; if Mr. Roboto-era Styx got together with Martha & the Muffins and had a baby band, it might sound like this.

can you hear the future call
valley boy, repo girl?
We’re tearing down the shopping mall…
can you hear the future call
wild boys and west end girls?
read the writing on the wall

A portion of the proceeds from the CD are going to benefit the Surfrider Foundation, a non-profit that works to fight ocean pollution and preserve beach access.

Hear clips here.

Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Pete Levin, Bloody Hollies, Stepanian

Pete Levin, Deacon Blues

The new CD by Pete Levin, the venerable New York synthesizer and Hammond organ specialist (and brother of bass and Chapman stick legend Tony Levin), is a set of pleasant, energetic Adult Contemporary jazz with occasional bursts of fusion energy. It’s all very classy, but clean and unthreatening, which isn’t how I generally like my jazz. Some situations do call for this kind of music, though, and there’s certainly plenty of talent on display here.

Levin’s solid, tasty touch on the Hammond organ is the constant, but longtime collaborator Danny Gottleib’s pastel-colorful drumming – listen to his inspired, in-time solo on “Icarus” – anchors the group on most tracks. Tony Levin’s rubbery bass leads the Jimmy Giuffre mood ballad “Sad Truth,” which also features a deep, delicate organ solo by Pete.

“Eclipse,” composed by the feathery-fingered guitarist Mike DeMicco, is probably my favorite track – it goes just a bit further out, and is the more satisfying for it. “Dragonfly” (another Giuffre tune) brings the fusion, with even a little touch of prog-rock. There’s a selection of classic songs too, adroitly given the smooth-jazz treatment. The Steely Dan hit “Deacon Blues” and the Beach Boys’ beautiful “Sail On Sailor” both come out well, as does the standard “Mean To Me.” I could have lived without the overdone Satie piece – jazzing that one up only makes it even more overplayed than it already is. But on the whole, if you’re in the mood for this kind of music, this CD could be just the thing to soothe your spirit without putting your mind to sleep.

The Bloody Hollies, Who to Trust Who to Kill Who to Love

I’m not going to dredge up any comparisons for the Bloody Hollies. The trio’s hybrid of punk rock and hard blues really, really works. High-energy rock with good songs is pretty rare these days. With stratospheric vocals, take-no-prisoners guitar work and a rhythm section that won’t quit, this crunchingly produced CD is one of the best hard rock albums I’ve heard in a while. Also they have an awesome name. Bloody Hollies – get it? Works on so many levels. Bloody… Effin’… Hollies. Kick-ass.

You can hear some full tracks at their Myspace page. Then buy the CD and listen to it loud in your car. Don’t have a car? Rent one and then listen to the Bloody Hollies loud in it. The Power of Rock commands you.

Stepanian, Wait Out the Rain

Then, when you need a break from the harder stuff, Stepanian’s smooth pop-rock could be the ticket. Easygoing vocals and bright saxophone lines couch some fairly pessimistic lyrics, but cheery arrangements and solid, if not spectacular, songwriting give the first four songs of the EP an upbeat feel. Only the closer, “Caroline,” feels truly sad, but it has a strong hook and is in fact one of the highlights. My other favorite is “Falling.” Starting off in a soft, innocuous bed of eighth notes, it subtly builds pop momentum, supported by a sharp, loping guitar riff over the choruses.

“Everything” jumps between funky, sparse verses and strong, power-pop choruses with a little heartland harmonica added. “Beautiful,” the opener, is sweet but a little too clichéd for my taste.

Agreeable and unthreatening without being boring, Stepanian is a band you could take home to your mother.

Available with extended clips at CD Baby.

Music Review: JJ Grey and Mofro, Country Ghetto

Mofro’s sizzling new CD – their first on Alligator Records – goes deep-fried with a panful of swampy blues and Stax-Volt soul. JJ Grey’s direct, concise songwriting has sharpened, while the band’s incantatory live shows translate better to disc here than on past recordings. The triumphant result strengthens Mofro’s position as the most important rock force to come out of the deep South in a while – maybe since Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

Many bands think they can make magical songs out of repetitive grooves; few can. But Mofro comes out swinging with the midtempo rocker “War.” Muscling through any and all distractions with its borrowed 1960s sounds, it pounds out a twenty-first century message: “There’s a war going on/And the ones about to die are safe at home/There’s a war going on/And the world stops feeling now.” Grey doesn’t have to preach about the destruction of the environment and the degradation of a people’s soul, however much those issues may weigh on him. It’s all there in a plain image and a single insistent riff.

The intensity actually mounts with a shift to a more personal theme in the deliberately paced “Circles.” Pushed along by Grey’s rolling electric piano, the song builds to a chorus that hangs on one desperately tense, off-rhythm, one-note melody: “There’s no way I can change the past or your pain/I don’t want to fight walking in circles.” The bitter narrator of the title track doesn’t want any handouts or “Hollywood words”; “The only voice that speaks for me speaks from this clay.” And the slow-building, persistent guitar and harmonica almost sound like clay.

The delusional, drug-addled figure in “Tragic” (“Are those FBI agents still hiding in his pine trees?”) isn’t so different from the protagonist of “By My Side,” where Grey uses his most powerfully soulful singing to declare humbly, “Now you know just how feeble/and how weak a man can be.” The slow, tribal-sounding “On Palastine” – about rapacious, early twentieth century timber barons – evokes a violent past with place names and earthen imagery, musically akin to Peter Matthiessen’s Florida novels. The mostly instrumental “Footsteps” is like a lost Doors jam with shades of Fleetwood Mac.

The blues-rock caterwaul of “Turpentine” takes you “deep in the piney woods” both in its lyrics and its oppressive rhythm, and then, just when you’re starting to think that Grey and Co. might have milked all they can out of simple grooves, along comes a complete change of pace, a soul ballad about love called “A Woman.” (Grey wrote it for Cassandra Wilson but she didn’t record it.) Then Grey shows off his vocal versatility by channeling Dr. John in “Mississippi” and Sam Cooke in “The Sun Is Shining Down.” The latter, characteristically, sets his most optimistic lyrics to slow, somber music that ramps up into a triumphant gospel chorus. In the epilogic “Goodbye” Grey breaks out a melancholy, distant falsetto for an appropriately musing signoff.

Among the excellent musicians who support Grey’s multi-instrumental talents, drummer George Sluppick deserves special mention for his easy, deep-pocketed beats. But JJ Grey is the man of the hour.

Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Charlie Louvin, The Soul of John Black, Ted Russell Kamp

This week’s round-up includes a couple of CDs that are notable enough to deserve their own articles. First we go way back with country music legend Charlie Louvin. Then we look to the future of the blues with The Soul of John Black. Finally we return to the present state of country music with the multi-talented journeyman musician Ted Russell Kamp. Time travel is our middle name here at the Indie Round-Up!

Charlie Louvin, Charlie Louvin

You can teach new tricks to some old dogs. Johnny Cash and Rod Stewart revitalized their careers by going in unexpected musical directions. Country Music Hall of Famer Charlie Louvin ain’t one of those guys. Louvin, all 79 years old of him, has a new CD out that should please both longtime fans and younger ones, but that’s because of his weathered, fragile, but still expressive voice, and these great old songs. This music goes back to the fifties and sixties, long enough ago that it surpasses nostalgia and becomes educational and – for younger folks, anyway – something like new again. A Louvin Brothers tribute album won two Grammy awards in 2004.

For this project Louvin and producer Mark Nevers re-recorded some tracks from the singer’s early days as half of the Louvin Brothers, like “The Christian Life,” along with some other country chestnuts like “Kneeling Drunkard’s Plea.” Louvin sings the latter – a song Cash also recorded late in life – exquisitely, with harmonies from Bright Eyes’s Alex McManus. In fact every song but one has a guest artist or two, making this yet another “duets” album, but that’s appropriate considering how well known the Louvin Brothers were for their close, gospel-derived harmonies. The simple, traditional arrangements make the CD seem organic, not contrived (as long as we agree not to talk about the silly feedback sounds on “Great Atomic Power.”)

Charlie Louvin

Not all the pairings work equally well. Contributions from Will Oldham and Paul Burch make for sweet listening, but Louvin’s soft, deep, grainy voice makes Tift Merritt and Clem Snide’s Eef Barzalay sound like lightweights, and George Jones sounds weak on “Must You Throw Dirt In My Face.” Dianne Berry contributes angelic harmony vocals, Marty Stuart’s light touch on the mandolin is a joy, and Elvis Costello, who has evidently signed a contract with the Muses guaranteeing him an appearance on every duet or tribute album ever made hereinafter and throughout the Universe, has a surprisingly touching turn on “When I Stop Dreaming.”

Charlie Louvin live

The only new song is a tribute to Louvin’s brother Ira, who died in a car accident in 1965. It’s good to know that Charlie can still summon the magic in the studio even with his weakened voice. On stage, he’s very frail these days, but commands it nonetheless like the old pro he is. You can catch this true living legend on tour this Spring.

The Soul of John Black, The Good Girl Blues

The new CD by The Soul of John Black – the band project of John A. Bigham (Fishbone, Miles Davis, Nikka Costa) – opens with a spectacularly strong statement. “The Hole,” a field-holler-inspired postmodern wail of blues anguish, tells the oldest story ever told:

I went down in the hole to see what I could see
When I got down in the hole, wasn’t nobody but me

Shades of Townes Van Zandt’s song of the same name – but only shades. Lyrically there isn’t much more than the two lines quoted above to the nearly six-minute song, and it doesn’t need any more. A elemental expression of the human condition, “The Hole” speaks of the urge to explore, the need for escape, and man’s essential loneliness. I had to listen to the song three times before I could leave it and go on to the rest of the CD.

The creamy, slow “Moon Blues” follows, and then the darkly erotic “I Got Work”:

I got some work I got to do
And it starts right here with loving you
Anyway you want me, anyway you need
I’m gon’ put in some work, girl, and bring you to your knees

Yes, among other virtues, this CD is nice and dirty. But there’s a good deal more to it than that. Imagine if Lenny Kravitz fully outgrew his fixation with adolescent rockstar posing and listened to nothing but Bob Dylan and Johnnie Taylor for a year – maybe he’d come out with something like this music. (Maybe Lenny has – who knows? I can’t say I’ve been following his career lately.)

“Good Girl” finds J.B. running trance-influenced beats under Chicago-style blues-rock, all swollen with thunderous soul harmonies. The more directly trance-y “Fire Blues” is a good showcase for the buttery Al Green tones in Bigham’s vocals. Neither song has much structure. They’re like the insistent crashing of waves as the tide comes in. “Moanin’,” which is just that – wordless vocalizing, with acoustic guitar accompaniment – makes a very good entr’acte between the five songs that go before it and the five after. (There’s an added short version of “The Hole” at the very end, for radio play I assume.)

The low-cut instrumental “Slipin’ and Slidin'” (sic) smartly mixes acoustic guitar noodling, trance beats and feedback-y effects. “Swamp Thing” has elements of R&B and a suggestion of rap but sounds most of all like an acoustic interpretation of early ZZ Top. “Swamp thing, try to put your thing on me – Not this time.”

The gentle, folksy drug-overdose tale “One Hit” echoes and updates Brewer & Shipley’s classic “One Toke Over The Line” musically and thematically, while “Feelin’s” dresses up Sly Stone funk in a coat of swampy soul, with irresistible results. Finally, “Deez Blues” gives the obligatory nod to Robert Johnson. “Oh Mr. Blues won’t you leave me alone, oh get out of my home.”

Don’t take the assortment of historical references and comparisons above to mean that The Soul of John Black is just a pastiche of styles. Obvious influences and uneven songwriting don’t take away from the force of originality that Bigham is massing here. It’s blues for a new generation, crafted by a mature spirit who is adept at acoustic, electric, and slide guitars as well as soulful singing.

The CD puts Bigham and his crew at the forefront of a small but (one can hope) potent movement that’s bringing blues up to date without sacrificing authenticity. To put it more positively, he’s working towards a truly new sound, solidifying the fragile resonance between today’s machine-tooled talent and the flesh-and-bones musical traditions of the past. Heady stuff, highly recommended.

Available with extended clips at CD Baby.

Ted Russell Kamp, Divisadero

All that time on the road with Shooter Jennings must have given multi-instrumentalist Ted Russell Kamp some mixed feelings about the life of a touring musician. His new CD contains a lot of lyrics about traveling, rootlessness, and the attendant sadness. But the standout track is the opener, a clever, perfectly catchy country-roots song about lost love called “Swinging Doors.”

“The Last Time I Let You Down” is a fine country power ballad, the kind of song someone like Faith Hill might have a big hit with. “So tonight I’ll be drivin’/’Cause I’m past the cryin’/It’s the last time that I’ll let you down.” “Maria” is a pretty love song, while the waltz-ballads “Music Is My Mistress” and “Looking for Someone” draw on the heartache that made Hank Williams so powerful: “A life lived alone, it ain’t no life at all/Like a broken-down van or an unfinished song.”

Kamp’s nasal, weatherbeaten voice isn’t the strongest in the world, but like Steve Earle (and Waylon Jennings, for that matter), he knows how to bring the pathos without getting cloying. Not all the songs are as good as “Swinging Door” or “The Last Time I Let You Down,” but a variety of styles keeps things moving. “Another One Night Stand” and “Better Before You Were Big Time” dip into New Orleans funk (Kamp even plays the brass parts), while “Can’t Go Back” does, in fact, go back – to 1970s soft rock, a la Atlanta Rhythm Section.

Kamp seems to be a modest virtuoso at just about every instrument that uses strings, keys, or air. Shooter Jennings and Jessi Colter make guest appearances, and a number of sidemen contribute, but this strong collection is essentially a one-man show, and in spite of maybe one or two too many songs about being a musician on the road, it’s a fun, well-played trip through the picturesque back roads of American country.

Available with extended clips at CD Baby.

Rock’s Greatest Bass Riffs

It’s time to give the bass its due.

You may not know this, but your intrepid reviewer is also a bass player, and he’s tired of reading about the greatest guitar riffs of all time. With very few exceptions, rock just wouldn’t be possible without the electric bass. So let’s investigate some of the greatest bass parts of all time. These are lines, or riffs, that made a hit a hit, or that inspired thousands of kids to pick up the instrument, or both.

Here, in chronological order, are my picks for the greatest rock bass riffs of all time.

The Animals, “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” (1965)

Bass doesn’t get more fundamental, and fundamentally important, than this. The bass line pretty much defines the song, and the song (along with the band’s famous version of “House of the Rising Sun”) pretty much sums up The Animals. And the Animals pretty much sum up the British Invasion, which in turn inspired the expansion and longevity of rock music worldwide. See where I’m going here? It’s all about the bass.

Cream “Sunshine of Your Love” (1967)

Sure, Clapton doubles this famous part on guitar when he’s not soloing, but really, who needs ‘im? This is Jack Bruce all the way. I was too young to ever see Cream, but when I eventually did see Bruce play live – with Ringo’s All-Stars – I realized that I’d copped more bass tricks from him than anyone else. And speaking of Ringo…

The Beatles, “Come Together” (1969)

Paul McCartney, the father of melodic rock bass playing. ‘Nuff said. Except I’ll note that this song received the 1969 Grammy for best-engineered recording. George Martin and the band were inspired to studio greatness by Paul’s bass part. Obviously.

Jethro Tull/J. S. Bach, “Bourée” (1969)

“Lead bass” came into its own with Tull’s arrangement of this well-known Bach tune. Of all the jazzy “walking” bass lines that have been put in the service of a classical piece played by a blues-based rock band that would go on to win a heavy metal Grammy, this was the finest. And the chordal solo near the end blew my mind when I first heard it.

Sugarloaf, “Green-Eyed Lady” (1970)

Sugarloaf got a couple of other songs on the charts, but only this psychedelic gem had real staying power. Why? The kick-ass bass part, of course. It’s so much fun to play that bass players often kick into it during jam sessions. And thus is the greatness that is this bass line passed down from generation to generation of unsung four-string heroes.

Lou Reed, “Walk on the Wild Side” (1971)

Bass chords: drug-fueled New York City multitasking at its best.

Bob Marley, “Stir It Up” (1972)

The quintessential reggae bass line, this one turned a simple, happy three-chord pop tune into an anthem for the ages that went way beyond the specificities of its national character.

Pink Floyd, “Money” (1973)

Psychedelic bass heaven, in 7/4 time.

Barney Miller theme (1975)

The opening bars of this jazzy number (written by Jack Elliott, who also composed the bass-heavy theme for Night Court) inspired many a fledgling bottom feeder. Thanks to the bass, this TV theme song was hip in an era when TV theme songs usually weren’t.

Fleetwood Mac, “The Chain” (1977)

Sure, classic disco music had a lot of excellent, prominent bass playing, but it wasn’t till decades later that we could look back and admit that disco – the real stuff, played by actual musicians – was pretty damn good. No, for kids growing up in the late seventies it was this haunting anthem that made the bass a full citizen of the musical universe. The exposed bass line at the end, with the drums and electric guitar creeping in over it, symbolized as well as anything the rumbling angst that seemed to define this band’s very existence.

Elvis Costello, “Pump It Up” (1978)

This one did exactly that for many bass players, proving that you could drive a great pop song with a fast, original and extremely active bass line that no one had ever heard before.

The Police, “Walking On the Moon” (1979)

Sure, the song is only pseudo-reggae, but the bass line helped make it an instant classic. All hail the Stingster!

Pete Townshend, “Gonna Get Ya” (1980)

To most bass players who admire him, John Entwhistle is more of a god than an actual influence – and that’s a good thing. It also partly explains why there are no Who songs on this list. (Entwhistle’s famous fills on “My Generation” are a solo, not a riff.) But Pete Townshend makes his mark anyway with the bass-driven jam at the center of this 1980 classic of over-the-top, theatrical, non-syncopated rock, inconceivable without the bass line.

Interregnum: The 1980s. Musically, I missed most of the 80s. In college, in the first half of the decade, my friends and I weren’t listening to the radio, and in any case, Journey, Van Halen and the like didn’t float my boat. Then, in the late 80s, I was too busy learning to play the bass – or something. I really don’t remember. If there are important rock bass parts from the 80s, feel free to fill me in in the comments section below. Just don’t call me late for dinner.

Green Day, “Longview” (1994)

This one inspired a new generation of bass players, and it’s a helluva lot of fun to play even if you can’t quite get Mike Dirnt’s sharp, clangy sound.

Beck, “Devil’s Haircut” (1996)

The fuzzed-out guitar insists on playing along, but the unforgettable four-note bass line is what makes this song a hit. Four strings. Four notes. Kozmic, man. OK, it’s Beck – probably used a synth bass. It’s still cool.

White Stripes, “Seven Nation Army” (2003)

Goofy and raucous, this song had the first unforgettable rock bass line of the twenty-first century – from a band without a bass player. (One other major rock band didn’t have a bass player: the Doors. But that was because Ray Manzarek played organ, including the bass line. Jazz organ trios don’t have bass players either, for the same reason.) Local H was another two-person band that managed without a bottom-ender, but the White Stripes are the only one that became huge. And this bass line is the reason they’re not a flash in the pan.

And there you have it – my non-definitive, incomplete, subjective, but staggeringly brilliant list of great bass parts. Think about how empty and meaningless your favorite music would be without the bass. And never forget the immortal words of Spinal Tap:

Big bottom
Big bottom
Talk about bum cakes
My girl’s got ’em

See? You gotta have that bottom end.

Want to comment on this article? Go over to Blogcritics, where the discussion has already begun…

Music Review: A Date With John Waters

Ah, Valentine’s Day. Day of kitsch, day of sentimentality, day of trash. It may be named after two saints, but nowadays it’s a Hallmark “holiday” – an excuse to sell cards, candy and flowers to ardent (or guilt-ridden) lovers, a time for the lonely to feel even worse.

Valentine’s Day is even more important for schoolchildren, as an early lesson in status-seeking, social humiliation, and bitter disappointment. Other holidays seem trivial in comparison: Easter, which teaches children the essential skill of painting eggs; Hanukkah, when Jewish kids learn to lie to their Christian friends about getting “eight presents;” Labor Day, a mysterious Monday off work with distant origins shrouded in myth.

Mostly, though, Valentine’s Day is big business, and specifically the big business of bad taste. For every lady coming home to a nice bunch of roses, ten others are getting garish heart-shaped boxes of awful “chocolate.” For every couple having a romantic dinner at a nice restaurant with white tablecloths, ten others are buying each other cheap, stuffed animals plastered with purple and pink mylar. So who better to spend the day with than the King of Kitsch, the Champion of Trash, the Baron of Bad Taste himself – John Waters?

OK, maybe we can’t actually personally hang with the man. But the new CD A Date With John Waters could be the next best thing. The legendary indie filmmaker (and unlikely Broadway mogul) has compiled a set of favorite love songs, cock-eyed Waters style. It all makes a nutty kind of sense. The CD starts with the vaguely threatening teen-infidelity tale “Tonight You Belong To Me” by Patience and Prudence. It also covers sexually ambiguous (and not-so-ambiguous) territory with Josie Cotton’s timeless novelty tune “Johnny Are You Queer?” and Elton Motello’s delightfully dirty punk-rock classic “Jet Boy Jet Girl” with its unforgettable line, “I’m gonna make you be a girl.”

Clarence “Frogman” Henry’s “Ain’t Got No Home” is, according to Waters, “the first tri-sexual song ever recorded,” and he may be right. Demonstrating that music was kinky before the Fabulous Fifties, Mildred Bailey’s “I’d Love to Take Orders From You” swings like there’ll never be another war: “I know that rules were made for fools, that’s one thing I have learned/But I’m goin’ in for discipline wherever you’re concerned.”

Tina Turner’s early tour-de-force of anger and jealousy “All I Can Do Is Cry” illuminates the dark side of weddings. Two of Waters’s wacky repertory actors, Mink Stole and the late Edith Massey, contribute delightfully nutty takes on, respectively, a song called “Sometimes I Wish I Had a Gun” and the oldie “Big Girls Don’t Cry.” Syrupy selections from the likes of Dean Martin and Ray Charles are less surprising but still fit the theme, while John Prine and Iris Dement betray the sentiment underlying the shock and trash: “There won’t be nothin’ but big ol’ hearts dancin’ in our eyes,” they sing in the simultaneously kinky and corny “In Spite of Ourselves.”

Really now – who could possibly want to die for art with all this great music to listen to, and auteurs (and characters) like John Waters to give it extra context? (He personally delivers the liner notes in a video.)

Good fun.

Blogcritic Bill Sherman has also posted a review of the CD, and Gothamist has a good interview with Waters about it.

Cross-posted at Blogcritics

Music Review: Indie Round-Up for Feb. 1 2007 – Kirchen, Jantz, Halter

A friend who regularly reads this column remarked on how rarely I publish negative reviews. It’s true, I tend to feature stuff I like, and that’s because I do this for the love of music (and writing). It’s a source of satisfaction to me to be able to give some exposure to good new indie releases that can use all the help they can get spreading the word.

No one’s paying me to write about any specific releases. I request only releases that look like they’ll be up my alley, or at least interesting. And when it comes to unsolicited stuff, I focus on what I consider to be the best of the pile. I have boxes full of CDs that didn’t inspire or interest me enough to write about.

When I do publish a negative review it’s usually because a recording interested me in some way even though I didn’t like it. Sometimes I’m using it as an excuse to rant about my more general opinions and prejudices. Other times I’m mad at a CD that disappointed me and I want to yell at it in public.

Also – and particularly when it comes to real do-it-yourself indies – my philosophy is to give weight to the positive aspects of a recording even when there are significant negatives. I feel justified in doing this since readers can generously sample virtually all releases online before they lay out any cash. Who buys music without sampling it first these days anyway, regardless of whether they’ve read a review?

And now for some music.

Bill Kirchen, Hammer of the Honky-Tonk Gods

The guitarist Bill Kirchen, the “King of Dieselbilly,” first made his name with Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen back in the late 60s and early 70s, and has since played with everyone from Gene Vincent to Ralph Stanley to Elvis Costello to Emmylou Harris. He is both a musicians’ musician and an accomplished, warm-hearted singer and songwriter.

Mr. Kirchen’s new CD stops at just about every station the Telecaster master has visited in his career – from Texas swing (“One More Day”) to Motown (“Soul Cruisin'”), from desert blues (“Rocks Into Sand”) and good old rock and roll (“Working Man”) to gritty rockabilly (“Heart of Gold,” the masterful “Get a Little Goner”). The title track – a churning ode to the Tele, “born at the junction of form and function” – is the only hint of the self-referentiality that sometimes swamps recordings by journeyman musicians more known for their skills than their personalities. This CD covers a lot of musical ground but is showoffy in only the humblest possible way. Kirchen’s easygoing, woody hum of a voice unites all the tracks, while his guitar playing is best appreciated over multiple listens, since the songs roll so smoothly from your speakers that you tend not to notice how they are made – which is, after all, the prime sign of good music.

This CD is a strong reminder of what makes – and who made – American music great. As Kirchen sings in the self-penned “One More Day:”

I’m gonna live it up like there’s no tomorrow
Crank up the love and turn down the sorrow
Get my ducks in a row for one more day
I’m gonna lay my head on the railroad track
When the whistle blows, I’m snatchin’ it back
I’ll be needing it for one more day.

Among the tracks that Kirchen didn’t write, highlights include his groovy take on “Devil with the Blue Dress On” and his old-fashioned country arrangment of Blackie Farrell’s “Skid Row On My Mind.” But Kirchen’s own, philosophical “Rocks into Sand” is my favorite track on the CD. “Before fish ever walked on land/Time was turning rocks into sand…Sand that sifts through the hands of man…All I’ll take is what I brought/And I may not get what I sought…That’s up to the shifting sands after all.” Check out this CD before all your own sand falls through your fingers. You won’t be sorry.

Michael Jantz, Snapshots of the Universe

Michael Jantz’s folk-rock songs boast some McCartney-esque melodies and changes (“You,” “Better Than You”), along with a light, soaring sound that’s sometimes reminiscent of Jeff Buckley, especially in the slow-moving “Turn on the Radio” and the sweetly simple melody of “Always On Time.” Adding stylistic variety to this, Jantz’s second release, is a folksy, blue-eyed-blues strain, like that of a John Sebastian or Randy Newman, evident in “Sierra” and “Mama’s Comin’ Home.” Jantz’s clear but distinctive tenor voice – buttressed by a creamy falsetto – is a strong point. Another is a knack for precise hooklets, like the wordless chorus of “Love is But an Ocean” and the slithery Robert Plant echo in the chorus of “You.”

The CD sags a bit in the middle under the weight of some less inspiring material, and Jantz’s lyrics range from appealingly minimalist (“Like breathing/I believe in you”) to inexplicable (“Until the mountains resolve to stand their ground/And the children they’ll just eat anything”). But this is the sort of pop music in which lyrics are secondary anyway – with the possible exception of the ska-influenced political song “Livin’ On Sunshine.” Overall, this CD is highly enjoyable, with plenty of good songwriting and a distinctive enough sound to be a little different. Recommended.

Available with extended clips at CD Baby.

Ernie Halter, Congress Hotel

Ernie Halter is part of the recent movement of singers – think Norah Jones, Amos Lee, John Mayer, Kevin So, Alicia Keys, and the granddaddy of the style, Keb’ Mo’ – who try, with differing approaches (and levels of success), to mix singer-songwriter intimacy with soul-music intensity. Unfortunately in Halter’s case the result of the recipe is a pretty bland stew. One problem is that he has the stuffed-up vocal delivery of a punk singer. Elvis Costello gets away with singing soulful ballads and sophisticated, jazzy pop with that kind of voice, so there’s nothing wrong with it in principle. But Halter’s limited instrument just sounds thin in this setting.

Second, most of the songs seem generic, as if written by committee. The best of the “up” tunes is the opener, “One You Need,” and even this chunky, otherwise satisfying New Orleans-style soul bopper suffers from colorless singing. “Better” (a cover) is another decent, energetic number. The lovely ballad “Lisa,” based on Beethoven’s “Für Elise,” is a keeper, and Halter’s muted style works well in the sweet “Love in L.A.” But they’re specks of pepper in a generally bland gumbo. All the horns and Hammonds in Memphis won’t draw you in if the songwriting is merely competent and the vocals don’t rock with the ages.

Music Review: Indie Round-Up for Jan. 11 2007

Tahiti 80, Fosbury

The French band Tahiti 80’s latest CD is chock full of sunny disco-soul, with lead singer’s Xavier Boyer’s ethereal voice soaring like a sleepy Smokey Robinson above graceful retro dance-pop arrangements. The best songs, like “Big Day,” “Changes,” and “Chinatown,” get the blood flowing, while the gentle “Take Me Back” shows the band can do a spare little ballad just right. “Matter of Time” harks back to Motown. So does “Give It Away,” which leads off the extra four-song EP that’s been included with the US release. “Cherry Pie,” by contrast, leans heavily on techno drums. Both sounds work for this inventive band.

The bonus EP also includes a reverent version of the Turtles’ classic “Happy Together,” which makes explicit the band’s obvious (yet strangely little-noted by the press) debt to bubblegum pop.

There are a couple too many songs on the main CD, but Tahiti 80’s curious, light, highly danceable and newly mature sound is very appealing. Listening to it one might think – just for a little while – that we don’t live in such a troubled world after all.

You can hear several tracks at their Myspace page.

Carey Ott, Lucid Dream

Listening to Carey Ott’s debut on Dualtone Records, I get that feeling of deja vu that often accompanies first exposure to a singer-songwriter. But what am I hearing, exactly?

Are his high notes a little like Thom Yorke’s? Yes, I suppose. Do the slow songs tinkle and droop like Tom Petty’s? Yeah, but…

Oh, right. Of course. The Beatles!

In some songs, it’s George Harrison, who I suspect might just be the most influential Beatle of all. In others, it’s John Lennon. The CD opens with the highly hooky “Am I Just One,” which is followed by “Daylight” in which a Radiohead influence is apparent, as it is in the gently insistent “Virginia.” Vocally, Ott often suggests Ray Davies singing in tune, and his “It’s Only Love” is clearly Kinks-inspired (in spite of having taken a Beatles song title).

“I Wouldn’t Do That To You” is another top-notch song. Indeed Ott’s knack for setting fine wordcraft to snappy melodies is evident throughout the CD. In “Shelf Life” he puts a Lennonesque effect on his voice to sing some of his most poetic lyrics: “Warsaw in winter, flowery graves/Can you still hear them whisper your name?/Afraid of the cold spots, caught in the tree tops/Love is a dogfight.” He closes the lovely “Kickingstones” with a succinct declaration of the power of song: “Isn’t love what you play for?/Don’t you have all that you need?”

And – there it is! The McCartney side of Ott’s Beatletude shines out in the powerful pop of “You Got Love.”

The only weak point – though it may be a significant one – is the lack of a distinctive sound. The only thing even mildly unusual about Ott’s arrangements is the tasteful but prominent use of keyboards, including a Fender Rhodes. His singing voice is pleasing and assured but he sounds like a million other singers. Breakout artists tend to be those who have that little something extra or different.

Despite this reservation, I recommend checking out Carey Ott if you appreciate well-crafted and emotionally charged songwriting delivered with talent and class.

Red Wanting Blue, Live: The Warehouse Sessions

Heartland pop-rock, heavy on acoustic guitar and piano – that’s Red Wanting Blue. It’s fine in small doses. But excessive earnestness and melodic sameness consign this long, live CD to the boredom bin.

Its companion DVD contains much of the same concert, but, unlike in the similarly packaged set from The Clarks, this band seems to be playing for the recording engineer and not for the fans, who supply energy and enthusiasm that the bored-looking musicians don’t reflect. The recording quality is good and the DVD authoring excellent, with several amusing extras, all of which will perhaps make the set desirable to the band’s fans. But the concert itself is not an impressive introduction to Red Wanting Blue.

Listen at their Myspace page.

Elizabeth and the Catapult, self-titled EP

This EP opens with the nifty pop-jazz tune “Waiting for the Kill,” a galloping 5/8 number with acid-sweet vocals from singer-songwriter-keyboardist Elizabeth Ziman and hopping acoustic bass from Jordan Scannella. The smoky jazz flavor carries through to the lush ballad “Right Next to You,” but Ziman’s feathery vocals work better in the quirky “Momma’s Boy” and the vampy verses of “Devil’s Calling.” Overall the music is interesting and pleasingly arranged but hurt by a lack of vocal heft. Precision songcraft lets Norah Jones get away with this, but with music that doesn’t quite hit that bullseye, more oomph is needed at the music’s focal point, which in this case is the singing.

Don’t miss Ziman’s ethereal keyboard work in the closing ballad, “Golden Ink.”

Available, with extended clips, at CD Baby.

Music Review: Lee “Scratch” Perry, Panic in Babylon

Unrighteousness, go backward. Unholiness, go backward. The 70-year-old voice of Lee “Scratch” Perry goes straight to the spirit-jugular. One of reggae’s pioneer artist-producers, Perry helped invent not only reggae itself, but also its dub subgenre, in which vocals became peripheral or absent while studio tricks, samples, and effects both limned and exploded reggae’s hypnotic off-beat.

This new CD is an album of reggae songs, with no pure dubs, but the arrangements have a fundamentally dub sound: deep and wide, spicy and spacey, and also funny. “Have a Perry salad, for this is Perry ballad,” invites the master. But he’s already treated us to a pointillistic autobiography in the title track. Perhaps no other artist can convey such generosity of spirit in so few words. It doesn’t matter if he’s claiming to be “Doctor Dick” or the “King of Africa” – “I will set you free with my music key” doesn’t feel like an idle boast in Perry’s voice.

Especially in “Purity Rock” and “Voodoo,” Perry and his musicians distill this style of music to its perfect essence. Perry’s discography is extensive, and I’m no expert in his career or his music. All I know is I haven’t been able to stop listening to this CD for three days.

Although the disc ends with a live version of the classic “Devil Dead,” with its celebration of ganja, the new tracks are evidence that – as Perry has found – it wasn’t the weed that endowed this now clean-living survivor with his genius. Who can blame Perry for this appropriate celebration of ganja? After all, the first time I listened to this song I was researching how to make shatter. It certainly was a very fitting song!

A bonus disc contains a painfully noisy remix of “Panic in Babylon” by Dave Sitek of TV on the Radio and two remixes of “Purity Rock” by New York public-radio darling DJ Spooky. These would probably work well in a dance hall, but only the “Purity Rock” instrumental interested my ears, as an example of how the raw and the slick can harmonize when good material passes through the hands of a good mixmaster. It’s also a reminder of what dub, strictly speaking, is all about.

Panic in Babylon is a treat for the ears, a tease of the funnybone, and a festival for all four chambers of the heart. (I’d wager it would beat CD101 for seduction purposes, too. Let me know if you try it.) Rating: four puffs out of four.

Available at

Music Review: Indie Round-Up for Dec. 28 2006 – Best of 2006

Once again it’s time to look back over the past year and try – and fail – to think of a clever or original way to introduce a best-of list.


Presenting Indie Round-up‘s Best of 2006.

The Artist of the Year for 2006 is Mofro, who, conveniently for my critical credibility, was just signed to the prestigious blues label Alligator Records. Lead vocalist JJ Grey and his band evoke all at once the gritty funk of James Brown (RIP), the blue-eyed soul of Beck and Leon Russell, the bayou twinkle of Dr. John, and the shamanistic stage presence of Jim Morrison. The latest CD is a good one, but in-concert is the only way to fully appreciate the spell woven by Grey, guitarist Daryl Hance, and whoever else happens to be on their stage at the moment.

Album of the Year goes to Gregg Swann‘s sparkling Everybody’s Got To Be Somewhere, a spot-on power-pop set without an ounce of filler. The artist himself seems to be somewhat reclusive – the gigs page at his minimalist website is empty as of this writing, and his Myspace page – where you can hear three full tracks (go there now) – has been little visited. Swann emailed me a thank-you note when I published my review, so, fortunately for fans of exceptional songwriting, it appears that he does exist.

International Album of the Year goes to Kobotown‘s Independence. Look for this Toronto-based, Caribbean-rooted band-with-a-message on festival stages in 2007.

Two releases share Instrumental Album of the Year honors: guitar wiz Vicki Genfan’s Up Close disc from her two-CD set Up Close and Personal (reviewed here), and the newly honored Grand Master of the shakuhachi Elizabeth Reian Bennett’s Song of the True Hand, which I covered here. In very different ways, these two releases exemplify the way a single individual with a musical instrument can wordlessly conjure the human spirit out of thin air.

Acoustic Song of the Year: Melissa Ivey, “No Ties to Break”
Mainstream Pop or Country Song of the Year: Laura Vecchione, “Fool’s Gold”
Guitar/Hard Rock song of the Year: Burden Brothers, “Still”
Cover Song of the Year: Joe Rohan, “Ring of Fire”
Best Song Featuring a Tuba: The Animators, “The Senator Goes to Hell”
Stupidest Band Name: Hinder (what is that, a butt? a verb? either way, lame, lame, lame.)

And that’s it. If you didn’t win this year, better luck next time. By the way, I like dark chocolate.

Best Indie Artist and CD for 2006

The editors of Blogcritics have asked me for a 200-word description of my Best-Of (artist and/or CD) for 2006. Here they are, freshly minted.

Indie Round-Up‘s Artist of the Year for 2006 is Mofro, who, conveniently for my critical credibility, was just signed to the prestigious blues label Alligator Records. Lead vocalist JJ Grey and his band evoke all at once the gritty funk of James Brown, the blue-eyed soul of Beck or Leon Russell, the bayou twinkle of Dr. John, and the shamanistic stage presence of Jim Morrison. The latest CD is a good one, but in-concert is the only way to fully appreciate the spell woven by Grey, guitarist Daryl Hance, and whoever else happens to be on their stage at the moment.

Album of the year goes to Gregg Swann‘s sparkling Everybody’s Got To Be Somewhere, a spot-on power-pop set without an ounce of filler. The artist himself seems to be somewhat reclusive – the gigs page at his minimalist website is empty as of this writing, and his Myspace page – where you can hear three full tracks (go there now) – has been little visited. Swann emailed me a thank-you note when I published my review, so, fortunately for fans of exceptional songwriting, it appears that he does exist.

Music Review: Indie Round-Up Focus on Fionn Ò Lochlainn – Spawn of the Beast, and live at Joe’s Pub

Versatility. It comes in handy in many walks of life, but may be most essential of all in the performing arts.

It’s easy to laugh at actors straining to become singers and models desperately trying to become actresses. But they do such things not for our ironic amusement, and not (though it often seems this way) out of pure vanity, but because they want lasting careers in a field where popularity is fleeting. It’s not easy.

For the independent musician, versatility is just as important. Burning cooler, he’s less likely to flame out quickly, but he pays for his store of potential energy by not making much money. Versatility for him means being able to front his own band today and work as a sideman tomorrow; to perform solo, to write, to play covers or traditional music, and to play multiple instruments – all while self-marketing and hustling. It’s not easy.

Yet a performer, whether star or journeyman, needs to make it look easy. The singer, songwriter and virtuoso string player Fionn Ò Lochlainn and his acoustic ensemble did just that last night at Joe’s Pub, celebrating the release of Fionn’s first solo CD, Spawn of the Beast. A fine artist on guitar, mandolin, piano and vocals, and with a batch of powerful original songs, he will be touring with Billy Bragg in the coming year. Right now, settled in New York, he’s promoting his new disc with a January residency at Rockwood Music Hall, which in its brief existence has become New York musicians’ favorite small room to play.

Fionn O'Lochlainn at Joe's Pub 12/13/2006 pic2

For the CD release party, a bigger venue was needed, hence last night’s packed show at Joe’s Pub. Fionn is one of those wholegrain performers whose work and presence can’t be separated. Celtic soul, singer-songwriter acoustica, and Frampton-esque rock star magnetism fuse in his stage persona, a mix that’s surprisingly well captured on the CD.

In concert, Fionn’s piping rock tenor occasionally plays second fiddle (so to speak) to his zooming handiwork on guitar and mandolin when the latter requires him to look down and away from the microphone. But his generosity as a performer makes you root for him no matter what. Able to masterfully steer a tight band that, amazingly, has only rehearsed once, while at the same time pulling in an audience much of which doesn’t know his music, Fionn makes a virtue of multitasking.

Happily, Fionn’s songwriting and interpretive ability can keep up with his devilish musicianship. The CD opens with three of his best originals: the dramatic “Walk My Way,” the lovely “Waterside,” and the insistent “Racing Against the Time,” the last of which in concert became a mesmerizing, accelerating train ride. Drummer Cindy Blackman (of Lenny Kravitz fame) and bassist Orlando Le Fleming (Jane Monheit) propelled the more rhythmic songs, while a powerful string quartet that included fiery cellist Natalie Haas and her violinist sister Brittany (who played on Danny Barnes’s Get Myself Together CD, which I reviewed last year here) provided added shots of soulful, sinewy musicality.

Fionn played a couple of songs by himself, including an a capella version of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” which is becoming a signature tune for him. Other non-originals included a delicate version of Stevie Wonder’s “Big Brother” and the exquisite “Green of the Grass,” written by Fionn’s father, Ruan Ò Lochlainn (who worked with Roxy Music, Ronnie Lane, and Jethro Tull among others). Fionn’s large talent enables him to make a big, rock-influenced sound and an equally substantial artistic statement using only traditional, acoustic instruments and keening, crystalline vocals. His original music leaps off the stage, and the CD reflects that energy as well as a studio recording can be expected to. He plays traditional Irish music around town as well, and plans to host a variety of guests at the upcoming Rockwood residency, Thursdays in January.

Song samples are available here; the CD is available at shows, and online here.

Weblog Award Nominations

Blogcritics, the online magazine where I cross-publish nearly all of the articles you see here, has been nominated for several Weblog Awards, including in the Best Music Blog category. As one of the regular music contributors, I’d just like to say that I couldn’t have done it without all the little people.

Voting starts tonight, and you can vote once a day for ten days.

Congratulations will be accepted at any of the upcoming Whisperado gigs, including tonight at Banjo Jim’s.

Book Review: Steel Drivin’ Man: John Henry: the Untold Story of an American Legend by Scott Reynolds Nelson

Not long ago, the fake-news rag The Onion cleverly updated an Industrial Age tale for the Digital Era: “Modern-Day John Henry Dies Trying To Out-Spreadsheet Excel 11.0.”

Fitting the tale of a nerdy number-cruncher into the framework of a mythically strong folk hero, the Onion made at least one reader laugh uncontrollably. When he had recovered his breath, that reader – OK, I – recognized that the story was so funny precisely because the parallel was so apt. The original, legendary John Henry had also died in a battle of man vs. machine.

I first heard the story of John Henry in a book of folk songs my parents kept by the piano and sang from often. “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” was actually the biggest family favorite. I never made the connection that the two songs came out of the same historical experience, and in any case I imagined such songs to be mere fanciful stories, no more “real” than the hole in the bottom of the sea or poor Charlie who could get never get off the subway for want of a nickel. (If his wife could pass him a sandwich through the train window, couldn’t she just as easily pass him the darn coin?) These songs were about tall tales and humor, not logic and reality.

Later I learned how the American folk song collections I’d grown up with in the 60s and 70s owed their existence to the socialistic, unionizing movement that came out of the Great Depression. “Working on the Railroad” referred to actually working on the railroad; it was the working man, not the rich man, who was hurt by subway fare increases; and John Henry symbolized the worker for whom hard labor meant a life cut short.

But John Henry himself, of course, was a myth, a made-up person, a symbol, like Paul Bunyan, or Superman.

Funny thing, though: turns out there really was a steel-drivin’ man named John Henry, a convict at the Virginia State Penitentiary who was conscripted to help dig the railroad tunnels that would connect the South with the West. He and his fellow workers did drive steel by hand alongside newfangled steam drills; he, with many others, died on the job, and was buried, just as the song says, in the sand by a “white house.”

Scott Reynolds Nelson, a history professor at the College of William and Mary, used cultural clues and dogged research to track down this real-life John Henry, and tells the story in this fascinating new book. A well-balanced combination of scholarship and popular history, the first part of the book vividly, if swiftly, re-creates life in the Virginias during and immediately after Reconstruction.

Blacks, freed after the Civil War, remained subject to a separate justice system. When convicted of minor crimes they received disproportionate sentences. John William Henry, far from the mythological giant, was a short New Jersey teenager who became Prisoner 497 after he stole something from a grocery store outside Petersburg, Virginia in 1866. The prison needed to support itself. The railroads needed strong workers who couldn’t strike for higher wages. Though seen by some reformers as a way to transfer prisoners out of terrible prison conditions and into healthy outdoor work, the resultant convict lease system turned out to be a death sentence for whole populations of inmates.

The invention of dynamite had made it feasible to tunnel through the hard, ancient rock of the Allegheny Mountains. But men still had to drill the holes for the explosives. In the early 1870s, railroad contractors were testing unreliable new steam drills alongside their teams of powerful, steel-driving men. Apparently, competition occurred. A legend was born.

Along with a concise history of Southern railroads and Reconstruction justice, Nelson traces the musical forms out of which different versions of the John Henry song evolved, explaining how songs and chants – often misinterpreted by whites as indicating high spirits – were really tools to prevent injury while working in teams. The new stream drills, for their part,

lacked the flexibility found in the skilled two-man hammer teams that had been tunneling through mountains for centuries. The hammer man swung a sledgehammer down onto the chisel. The shaker shifted the drill [the chisel] between blows to improve the drill’s bite… Song coordinated the movements… humorous songs, sad songs, religious songs, all rhythm and meter and intonation but without an obvious melody – phrases, really… Theirs was a finely tuned instrument that a manufactured steam drill could not match. [C&O Railroad mogul Collis Porter] Huntington imagined that a steam drill could replace the skilled labor of miners, that he could work without their rock and roll. He was wrong.

So, the next time Grandpa complains that “kids’ music these days” is all beat and no tune, remind him that “rock and roll” got its backbeat, and its very name, from the motions and songs of black railroad diggers who toiled in the mountains long before he and Grandma were jitterbugging to the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra.

Nelson’s evidence for identifying John William Henry, Prisoner 497, as the source of the “John Henry” legend is inconclusive, though tantalizing. Biographical information on Nelson’s John Henry is, and probably will remain, too skimpy for certainty. The song “John Henry,” however, probably is, as Nelson claims, the most recorded American folk song. There are more, probably many more, than 200 versions. (It appears on two recordings discussed in my Indie Round-up column just in the past six months: the Big Bill Broonzy Amsterdam Live Concerts 1953, and Hillstomp‘s 2004 debut CD.) It exists in many versions and has taken on many meanings. “Among trackliners who lived by their strength, [it] found its home as a story of heroism, one tinged with anxiety about the future,” Nelson says. Though the story of John Henry’s death may have originally been told in the form of a relatively tuneless “hammer song,” it

“was carefully folded into the familiar and disturbing horrors of the ballad tradition. Coal miners, black and white, made John Henry one of their own…a Moses who gave the South the Promised Land of the West, but could not live to see it. For prisoners, the song suggested the questions about loved ones: Would they be true, and would prisoners ever live to see them again?

Nelson seems ambivalent about the “English professors and sociologists” through whose agency the song was transformed from a “complex and unsettling story” to “a fabulous, impossible legend” that had, by the twentieth century, come to serve as “a historical commentary, its performance carefully calibrated to recall a bygone era.” He seems to lament a loss of purity, while recognizing that songs belong to the people and are forever developing and mutating. Placing “John Henry” in context at the nexus of what became American blues, folk, and country music, he closes with a section that includes a description of how the song spread after its “rediscovery” early in the twentieth century, from earliest recordings to popular interpretations by white artists – among them Burl Ives, Pete Seeger, Johnny Cash, Drive-By Truckers, and Bruce Springsteen – and black artists such as Harry Belafonte, Mississippi John Hurt, and Cephas and Wiggins (though he does not mention all of these).

Nelson’s focus on the development of American musical forms through the lens of “John Henry” will prove enlightening to musicians and to fans of roots music. He does, however, fly quickly through this history, and some of his declarations seem a little pat. Was Carl Sandburg really the “first American folk singer?” Did Fiddlin’ John Carson “invent” country music? The book contains occasional inconsistencies and editorial or factual errors. No German or American city had a population in the “tens of millions” during the years 1871 to 1921 (or ever), and that’s a 50-year span, not 40. The band They Might Be Giants titled an album John Henry but did not record the song.

Equally important was the use of John Henry’s image and story by the labor movement. There were plays about John Henry, children’s books about John Henry (I remember one of those), and comic book heroes like Superman who evolved (in Nelson’s analysis) from the John Henry strongman character as depicted by artists of the early twentieth century. Several examples of that impressive John Henry artwork are reproduced in the book.

Few things are more interesting than when folklore and history dovetail. This book is a valuable contribution to both studies, and a fascinating read. It’s not flawless. The writing is occasionally awkward, and some errors have slipped through the editorial process. There are extensive notes, but an appendix pointing the reader to at least some of the recordings mentioned in the book would have been welcome. And Nelson, while an acknowledged railroad expert and a credible folklorist, is not a musicologist. Nevertheless he is well-qualified to tell this story, and it’s a good one.

Cross-posted at Blogcritics

Music Review: Indie Round-Up for Nov. 30 2006 – Burden Brothers, Caddle, D’Haene

With stellar songwriting, crisp but heavy production, and roadkill vocals, the Burden Brothers prove that rock can still rock.

Burden Brothers, Mercy

The Burden Brothers are the creation of one of modern rock’s great voices – Toadies’ Vaden Todd Lewis – and drummer Taz Bentley, formerly of the Reverend Horton Heat. With a supporting cast of guitar-slingers, they’ve put out a nearly hourlong CD that, unlike many such productions, doesn’t get tired halfway through.

Opening with the spooky, Beatle-esque “It’s Time,” the CD charges ahead with the Foo Fighters-style screamer “Shine” and the infectious, almost old-fashioned melodiousness of “Still.” The angst-laden “Everybody Is Easy” is superior, catchy rock despite its vague lyrics.

The polyrhythmic “Trick of Logic,” the ballad “Life Between,” the Nirvana-inspired “Good Night From Chicago,” and the grim “Daughter of Science” all further the story – each song has its own flavor, so the ear never gets tired. The titanic “I Am a Cancer” plunges into heavy metal gloom, and when, in “In My Sky,” Lewis grammarlessly screams, “You and me can slip away at last tonight/I can see your stars are shining in my sky,” the combination of primal yell with romantic words lays bare the heart of the album. “On Our Own” then tells the other side: “Just wave as you roll past my cloud/We’re all on our own now.” But our hero is still wishing on a star. The song has an elegiac quality to it, and seems a natural end to the CD – but two of the best tracks remain.

The thrumming, roiling love song “Oh, Cecilia” couches sentiments of longing in alternately warbling and harsh guitars. “Liberated,” a memorable declaration of freedom (with a caveat about high gas prices), is a near-perfect midtempo rock song, earning its full six minutes with a muscled vocal/instrumental hook.

Every track on the CD is worth hearing. Stellar songwriting, crisp but heavy production, and Lewis’s roadkill vocals make this one of the year’s top rock albums. Its fifteen tracks make a major statement: rock can still rock.

Caddle, Raise ‘Em High Dixie fried roots-rock? Southern boogie-rock skullabilly? Whatever you call Caddle, the Birmingham AL band’s debut CD is spring-loaded with southern-rock energy. Think back to the Georgia Satellites, or even Lynyrd Skynyrd, but add a bit of punk crunch and a touch of Big-and-Rich buffoonery.

A chinkling banjo enlivens the humor in the hard-rocking “Better Bad.” (“She’s got a wiggle and walks with a grin/Where she stops I begin…When she’s good she’s really bad but when she’s bad she’s better.”) The openers, “Mississippi Doublewide” and “Work,” are raucous, defiantly high-spirited blue-collar anthems whose minimalist choruses represent the bleakness of the working man’s life. “Stay With Me” shows that the band is handy with a sad love song too.

But Caddle’s overriding theme is much more serious: drinking in bars. The narrator of “Afternoon Lies” is a bar owner, in fact: “The sun never shines on the inside of this bar of mine/The beer is cold and the stories told are sure to blow your mind.” The title track says it best: “Money’s leavin’ but I’m staying/Sling another drink to me/Party till it’s morning/Baby what’s your sign?/Daddy’s got a brand new bag/Livin’ on a dime.”

The CD is a very enjoyable ride. It might have one power ballad too many, although “Give Me A Dollar” is a fine one – guess what he needs the dollar for? (Hint: it has flashing lights, it’s often found in a bar, and it plays music.) So, in spite of a slight sag in the center, Caddle’s debut – unlike the protagonists in most of the songs – comes up a big winner.

Extended clips can be heard here.

D’Haene, Brother Man

D’Haene merges soulful, lived-in vocals with funky guitar and hard rock riffs. In spite of a 70s classic rock influence, the mixing of genres and the wry, intelligent lyrics make the disc sound modern.

One minute you’ll be reminded of Randy Newman, the next of Blue Oyster Cult, then you’re grooving to some funk-jam band at a hygiene-deficient festival in upstate New York. Sometimes these shifts occur within a single song. “Feelin’ Human,” which, at just over five minutes, is of average length for this CD, is a mini-sonata, something like the early Who or Elton John might have done.

Bob D’Haene’s voice isn’t always up to the ambitions of his music, but the CD has a number of strong points. Extended clips can be heard here.

NEWS ABOUT NOTES: Copeland, a band Blogcritics has been all over (here, here, and here, at least), has signed with Columbia Records. The band’s new CD, Eat, Sleep, Repeat, entered the Billboard Top 200 best-selling albums chart at #90. The band is currently on tour with The Appleseed Cast.

When a band we’ve covered here at the Indie Round-Up jumps to a major label, we have to stop talking about them. So let’s listen to some Caddle while we break open a six-pack and send Copeland off into the world of, we hope, bigger and bigger success.

Cross-posted at Blogcritics Magazine