Book Review: All You Need To Know About the Music Business: 6th Edition by Donald S. Passman

A classic of music industry literature, this title has been a must-have for aspiring and working music industry pros since it first appeared in 1991. But with all the new ways music is being made, discovered, and acquired, Donald S. Passman, a practicing music attorney for 30 years, has, not surprisingly, updated the book a number of times. This new edition retains his knack for explaining tricky legal and financial concepts in plain English. Its near-encyclopedic coverage of the music business’s many aspects makes it as valuable as ever, while a goofy sense of humor helps lighten up the proceedings.

Notable among the book’s virtues, the author takes pains to explain both sides of contractual matters that commonly need to be worked out among artists, songwriters, record labels, merchandisers, managers, agents, movie producers and others. Rather than just “Here’s what you should ask for,” Passman also describes the argument against the artist’s position and what he or she should realistically expect based on level of accomplishment (starting-out, midlevel, or superstar).

Passman is a practicing attorney who works with major clients, like R.E.M. and Janet Jackson. Reading through the long section about record deals, the typical musician could be forgiven for wondering whether the book might have been better shelved in the fantasy aisle. The percentage of aspiring musical artists who will ever need the bulk of Passman’s advice in this section is minuscule.

The sections on publishing, touring, and TV and film, however, contain much important information about areas in which the lowly beginner is most likely already working (or thinking seriously about). Many of the issues covered, like what kinds of arrangements band members should make among themselves, do need to be thought out at the beginning, before any major success occurs, even if the chances of that success are low. Anyone making a serious go at a music career will find valuable and necessary information and advice in at least some sections of this book.

Unlike most people I know in the music industry, Passman doesn’t think it’s broken. Noting its history of ups and downs, he believes big music’s current woes are just another downturn, a period of adjustment to new technologies. Such optimism is so unusual today as to seem almost wacky. One suspects that Passman’s own success as an entertainment attorney has stranded him in the rarefied atmosphere of the very top, where artists still sign (or dream of signing) major deals. Other than some rappers, I don’t know any artists who still think signing a major label deal is a good thing (though there must be some out there).

Passman does explain how such deals have changed in recent years, what the trends are, what realistic numbers are for deals with independent labels as well as majors, and so on. He covers current issues like digital downloads, and he gets all the way down to the nitty-gritty of t-shirt sales and other practical matters that come up as artists move up (or sideways). Since in its details the book remains realistic, I recommend it for anyone who wants to climb on the big scary jungle gym of the music business at any level. Not only artists – also pure songwriters, managers, promoters, lawyers, and anyone who aspires to those positions – will benefit. Read through the part about the label deals to learn how things used to be. Read through the rest, substituting – if you’re an artist – “you” for “your label,” and Passman’s advice and inside information remain invaluable.

Music Review: Indie Round-Up for Nov. 16 2006 – Copeland, Wolfkin, Jason Vigil

Copeland, Eat, Sleep, Repeat

Copeland‘s third CD is a sharp turn towards the brooding sound of Radiohead. On first listen it seems self-conscious, as if the band had deliberately set out to make an Important Record. Aaron Marsh’s distinctive tenor is as full of passion as ever, but individually the songs (with a few partial exceptions, like “Control Freak”) aren’t melodically memorable. The intention seems to be more to make an album-length statement, almost a concept composition, and in this the CD succeeds, with numerous interesting twists, lush and sometimes unusual instrumentation, and a bit of rhythmic experimentation. I liked it very much as a whole. Fans of the band’s earlier, harder, more hooky rock are, understandably, having a variety of reactions.

Is Eat, Sleep, Repeat really an Important Record? In the sense that no one else is filling the void Radiohead left when they went deeply experimental, I’d say yes. Certainly Copeland could end up an important band. On the other hand, with the major labels no longer in the business of putting out innovative rock, what gets seared into the musical consciousness of new generations is up to the tastes and the clout of countless smaller labels and their use of new methods to promote and distribute their music. Signed to The Militia Group, Copeland is certainly positioned well. But only time will tell.

Wolfkin, Brand New Pants

If you think Scandinavian pop is all shiny-happy Ace of Base stuff, this Danish band will show you otherwise. Wolfkin‘s debut CD uses plenty of synthesizer sounds along with guitar, bass and drums, but it’s in the service of a smart vision. They filter elements of rock, pop and dance music into a strong, dark modern brew. Sung in English, the music is creative, fun, and sometimes funny, but the lyrics are often visceral and grim: “The Devil knit the shirts we’re in we choose to call it skin/That shrunken little thing you call your heart.” At the same time, being not-quite native English speakers, their syntax makes for interesting verbal curiosities: “When you walk barefoot through the room/I instantaneously enter my bloom like deliberately.” They run a bit low on creative steam on the second half of the CD, where playfulness gives way to a certain sameness, but overall the disc makes a musical statement that, after several listens, may worm its way into your own shrunken little heart.

Jason Vigil, Heart Gone Sober

Jason Vigil’s hybrid of anthemic alt-rock and heartland howling seems at first to have too much bluster, but by the end of the CD it has earned its drama. Though Vigil and his band are very good at sustaining moods (and playing their instruments), many of the lyrics are just strings of relationship homilies set to run-of-the-mill melodies. Yet at his best, as in “So Tell me,” Vigil evokes the gravelly passion of an Ed Kowalczyk.

At other times he sings breathily (as in “Hurts To Be Without”), or pronounces things strangely (as in “Safety’s Gone,” where you have to look at the lyrics to know that he’s singing “I don’t want to be down” and not “I don’t want to be dead”), for cheap effect. But then comes the icepick-powerful “Looking in the Sun” and the unique bolt of lightning “Come To Me,” and it all seems worth it.

When all is said and done, this CD is a pleasure to listen to, but, hook-wise, after three listens, nothing has stuck in my head. Your mileage may vary; it’s worth a try because it’s good stuff in many ways. Extended clips can be heard here.

Music Review: Indie Round-Up for Nov. 2 2006

The Ratchets, Glory Bound

This angry, melodic, Clash-inspired punk-and-roll with a message is so perfect in its way I can’t help wondering if it’s an act, and I don’t mean in the sense that all bands are acts. But how can you not like a band with lyrics like “Money makers are coming in their Cadillacs/To watch us eat our lunch/Sloganeers are here with their assholes shined/To beat us to the punch”? In four quick lines they establish both working class cred and clear-eyed political realism.

Their second, endearingly old-fashioned main theme is “rock is our salvation” and they seem to mean it both symbolically and literally: “We’re human amplifiers/Together they can’t deny us;” “it doesn’t matter how firmly you are wound/There’s plenty of people who will try to water you down/Don’t let them drown you.” Sophisticated guitar layering, keyboard touches, and relatively slow tempos contrast effectively with hoarsely shouted vocals.

Harsh, Jimmy Page inspired guitar work livens up the funny, minimalist “Irritated,” while a pop-reggae beat churns through “Ration,” a frustrated love song to someone who’s overly scheduled. The CD’s centerpiece is “Skyjack Sunday Starts,” an ambitious if somewhat confused bass-driven reflection on terrorism in the skies. It’s followed by a return to the regular-guy blues in “Don’t Wanna Go” and “Cathedral Bells.” The latter links a sweet island-music flavor to a catchy rock chorus and is my favorite song on the CD, next to the anthemic “Born Wrong” that closes it.

The straight-ahead reggae “Proclamation Time” reinforces the band’s political stance. They never exactly identify their enemy, but revolution’s clearly in their air they’re breathing. If they mean it, that is. In the age of irony, these things are hard to read. But the inspired lyrics of “Born Wrong” argue strongly for sincerity:

Could you send the word out on scrape-faced Jake?
He lost it all in a burned out wreck
He was a wild card till he hit the floor
Noon tomorrow we’ll bury Jake in the ground
So let’s roll this steel convoy with the pedals down
Mile line glorybound payin’ last respects
We’re born wrong senorita
All along senorita
We’re born wrong.

The band has taken the smart step of streaming the entire CD at their website.

Aaron Comess, Catskills Cry

Aaron Comess, best known as the Spin Doctors’ drummer, has a new CD that can perhaps best be described as ambient rock. On these eleven tracks of thick, richly imagined instrumental music Comess collaborates with guitarist Bill Dillon (Sarah McLachlan, Marc Cohn, Joni Mitchell) and legendary bassist and Chapman stick player Tony Levin. It suggests what might have happened if some pioneering prog-rock band of the 60s or 70s had matured and mellowed. The music is certainly more colorful and expressive sans vocals than a lot of sung music. Underpinned by Comess’s chunky drumming, Dillon’s guitars and guitorgan cook up dense atmospheres, leaving much of the melodic work to Levin. Unconventional time signatures (“Seventy-Six,” “Ode to Attila”) and titanic polyrhythms (“Africa”) give way to devilish gloom-rock (“Future,” “Sky”) and meditative stuff that could almost be smooth jazz (“Zapped.”)

Extended clips can be heard here.

Breaking Laces, Astronomy Is My Life, But I Love You

Breaking Laces makes essentially acoustic-based pop-rock that’s strong and assured, sweet and sometimes funny. One could say “Bowie meets Live,” but there’s also a singer-songwriter aspect to this talented trio that harks back to 1960s folk-rock. There’s nothing new under the Sun (or the Chess or the Motown or the Bomp), but these guys are very good at putting their own twist on the basics. It’s suburban chill music for the post-American Beauty generation. “Promise me that you won’t believe/All the reasons they say you cannot leave/Let’s go, we’ll prove that love is blind/To their holy suburban dividing lines.” Echo and Narcissus, Romeo and Juliet, Buffy and Angel – these stories never get old, and neither will we as long as we have good, grown-up, rock-charged pop like this to listen to.

Extended clips can be heard here.

All I Really Need to Know I Learned from John Hiatt Lyrics

Listen up, all you womenfolk! Do you want to understand what drives the human male? Do you wish to comprehend the vastness of his emptiness and grok his strange ways? Do you just maybe want to know what’s eating him? Then look no further than the works of The Man himself: Mr. John Hiatt, whose song lyrics explain it all.

Now, women, it’s nice when you love us, but after a certain point we become perplexed (and even begin to resent you) at your seeming failure to understand what a bastard we actually are. (Actually, what we don’t usually realize is that you knew it all along, but can’t act upon the knowledge because of some female-specific constitutional defect that remains a mystery to us.) Anyway, The Man explains it in “Angel Eyes”:

So tonight I’ll ask the stars above
How did I ever win your love?
What did I do, what did I say
To turn your angel eyes my way?

There’s no answer. Or if there is, the guy in the song sure doesn’t find it. He’s asking rhetorical-like questions, see. (Hiatt even has a song called “She Loves the Jerk.”)

The flip side of the “What the hell are you doing with me?” theme is “I swear I’ll always love you and be faithful, and by ‘swear’ I mean I’m gonna try.” Women and men are from the same planet, but words can mean different things to them. The Man sums it up in “Cross My Fingers”:

Baby when I put my mind to it
I slip into another gear
And I travel in another syncopation
When all I wanna be is here with you, and
I’ll be true to you – cross my fingers
I’ll be good to you – cross my fingers

See? He’s trying his best, which is all he can do.

Often it’s a futile effort, as in “Little Head”:

I’m loyal as a dog but I’m a hog for that sexual attraction
It starts up in my mind and makes a bee line below the belt
No consequences just satisfaction
Baby in my heart I’m faithful
This two headed monster is so distasteful
Forgive me when my instincts start stinkin’
I’m just so easily led when the little head does the thinkin’

Even you probably realize that when it gets right down to it, what makes you dig a guy isn’t his little head so much as his brain – expressed, usually, through his words. So who better than a master songwriter-dude to lay all this out so that even your confused female minds can understand it? In “Loving a Hurricane” The Man casts a cold clear eye on the process of courtship, and you’d do well to take note:

You [the man] answer questions like a natural disaster
Voices in the wind – you let ’em call her out
The whole foundation just went flying right past her
She puts her heart into it – and you just yank it out
You pulled her love out through the window pane
That’s what she gets for loving a hurricane

Let’s look closely at that. The song’s very first line establishes the importance of language in the process of love. “Answer[ing] questions like a natural disaster,” he’s using the power of his words to overwhelm her, to take away her sense of control over life – just as happens when nature rises up against us, except this is a form of surrender which she may like and encourage. The “voices in the wind” are the poetic tradition, which he draws upon to whip away her whole foundation, to “call her out” and “pull her love out.”

Traditions are everpresent in Hiatt’s lyrics. In “Your Dad Did,” Hiatt’s workingman hero, though no poet, also recognizes his debt to those who came before: “You’re a chip off the old block/Why does it come as such a shock/That every road up which you rock/Your dad already did?” Even this everyday married-with-children guy finds grace in what came before:

Well the day was long now, supper’s on
The thrill is gone
But something’s taking place
Yeah the food is cold and your wife feels old
But all hands fold
As the two-year-old says grace…
You love your wife and kids
Just like your dad did.

By contrast, a man not armed with at least the homiest wisdom of the ages is a lost soul, as in “Native Son”: “Running through the woods/And the burned out neighborhoods/Looking for someone/A member of your tribe/A place you can hide/’Til the war has begun.” Such a man’s loves can end only in something explosive (like a war) or in a quieter failure, as “Cry Love,” told from the woman’s point of view, shows:

The trust of a woman in his hand
But he was a little boy, not a man
You loved him stronger than he could feel
Yeah he was wrapped up in himself like an orange peel.

What looks to her like an stubbornly uncommunicative man is really a man paralyzed by his own thoughts, like the poor guy in “You Must Go”:

Love is in the air
You can smell it everywhere
It’s in your clothes, it’s in her hair
Ah, you better get out of there
It’s gonna take a midnight train
To straighten out your winding brain.

A lot of perfectly decent guys are caught up in this kind of situation and don’t know how to get out. Some are too smart for their own good, but for many it’s because they didn’t pay attention in school, don’t read books, and don’t know how to use their male brain as intended. The nerd gets the girl in the end, but not, as the Al Bundys of the world might think, because he’s rich; no, the nerd gets the girl because he does know how to use his male brain.

Sometimes the trapped man breaks out, as in “Feelin’ Again”:

I thought I had to curl up from my head down to my toes
But heaven knows that I was wrong, I’m feeling again
Holding my breath and holed up in this cheap motel, I feel like hell
I’m holding my own heart, I’m feeling again

Maybe he had to go through “alcohol fire,” like the guy in “Paper Thin,” but he escaped from inside himself. Still he feels “like hell,” because it’s overwhelming to be feeling so much: “When I get that feeling like a bass drum/Pounding til my head is numb/Electric onion peeling within…” He may have gotten the girl, but that awesome brain of his still can’t satisfy his craving for understanding. (Why did I get the girl?)

As you can see, Hiatt’s lyrics illustrate all the important iterations of the male condition:

1. I don’t know exactly who the hell I am, but I seem to be an asshole. Why do you love me?
2. I’m only my father’s son, so it ain’t my fault. Wait a minute, how did I get here? What is the meaning of – hey, you’re sexy!

“Only the Song Survives” distills this male confusion into a story in which a man dreams of a terrible car accident with a woman who may or may not be his wife. She explains:

Now don’t you remember they put a patch on your eye
Like Dread Pirate Roberts, you looked so unplanned
They cut off my wedding ring and you started to cry
A one-eyed Niagara Falls man

“But I never married,” objects the man. So is this injured woman with the wedding ring his wife? “Faces were changed… faces get strange,” goes the refrain – as they are wont to do in dreams. The dream-man looks “unplanned” because he is. What could be more unplanned, more emblematic of losing control, than a car accident?

But I woke up sweating to breakfast in bed
And there were my children, and there was my wife
Post-traumatic stress, or just a bump on the head?
Or maybe the ride of my life

It’s the ride of his life, all right, a ride of confusion, statelessness, and knocks on the head. Yet somehow his domestic life is still there for him. And he’ll never figure out why. Woman, to him, is magic, like the

woman sawed in half, her legs in Tijuana
She was a bodyless head and trapeze artist in a circus in Bombay
Now a woman’s gonna do exactly what a woman’s gonna
Yeah, some bad magicians wouldn’t have it any other way
She holds on to that trapeze by the skin of her teeth, or so they say

With images of a woman in two places at once and possessed of magical survival skills, Hiatt has now universalized his depiction of the split human condition. The passive (female) subject of the magic trick somehow finds her power and makes do even after she’s been cut in half. Meanwhile the “bad magician,” the songwriter, the caster of spells with words, feels his power, yet ultimately doesn’t understand it any better than the average joe of “Buffalo River Home” does:

I’ve been circling the wagons down at Times Square
Trying to fill up this hole in my soul but nothing fits there
Just when you think you can let it rip
You’re pounding the pavement in your daddy’s wingtips
As if you had some place better to go…

Although domesticated, and walking in his father’s footsteps, he’s still listening for that “Something Wild,” believing in the promise of “It’ll Come To You”:

Now you’re happily married with a wife and kids of your own
But sometimes in the closet at night you can hear them rattlin’ bones
Takin’ bets on your future and your current postal zone
It’s a spooky equation, but check out yourself, Jack, you’re the great unknown…
[but] in the middle of the night, with your covers pulled up tight
It’ll come to you

The understanding that will come to him, and the something wild that he both desires and fears, are two halves of the same nature. All of us have these dual natures. Now you know where to find out all you need to know about the particularly frustrating male version of this internal, eternal conflict: the lyrics of The Man himself, John Hiatt.

Music Review: Indie Round-Up for Oct. 19 2006 – Special Happy Music Edition

This week we cover only happy music. I said: Only happy music. Only. Happy. Music. Shut up.

Nicola, Don’t Take It Personally

Latin-tinged soulfulness and a unique mix of hard pop and polyrhythmic complexity have always characterized Nicola, but she and her band (also called Nicola) inch towards the progressive edge of alt-rock with this, her third CD. As on her earlier releases, Nicola’s catlike alto and spidery, sensuous acoustic guitar meld with the funkiness of her tight-as-leather-pants band to create an original but accessible pop sound. This disc is not as replete with hooks, however, as her past work. The songs, while strong and frequently striking, have more of the rock landscape about them and less of the portrait.

The title track is quite catchy, however, as is the power ballad “Crazy.” “Lighthouse” is a nifty mix of heavy rock and melodic soundscape, and “In Your Own Backyard” is a surprisingly convincing rap-metal experiment featuring Tah Phrum Duh Bush.

From “(5,6,7,8) Hot Date,” a hilarious blast of relationship anger punk, to its opposite extreme, the soul ballad “Combustible,” Nicola’s work continues to express one of pop music’s more creative musical visions. And their live shows are a party and a half. The New York release party for the CD will be at the Bowery Poetry Club on Nov. 17.

Extended clips here.

Brian Simpson, Postcard From L.A.

When an artist is so closely imitative of one inspiration as Brian Simpson is of Tom Petty, the listener can have two possible responses: take it entirely on its own terms, or put it in context. In context, there’s a certain lack of originality. Simpson sings like Tom Petty (crossed with Huey Lewis), he writes like Tom Petty, and most strikingly he arranges like Tom Petty. But on his own terms, he’s pretty darn good, making well-crafted, sunny California pop-rock with engaging vocals and a happy vibe.

The main disadvantage of aping someone’s sound is that your songwriting tends to suffer by comparison. But while Simpson doesn’t match his idol in that regard, few do, and these songs have much going for them on their own. This is well-made, feel-good music, and we always need more of that.

Extended clips can be heard here.

The Brightwings, Stay

Equally sunny sounds come from the Brightwings. The California lilt of their shimmery folk-rock is a tribute to their devotion to their artistic vision and to modern heating (or maybe global warming) – the band is from Boston. “All I Need” is highly catchy, and “Many Miles” and “Mallory” are fine pop baubles as well, while the wispy “I Want You To Stay” harks back to 1960s pop. The only weakness is that some of the lead vocals lack heft, though the lustrous harmonies in the choruses make up for that somewhat. The CD closes with a lovely version of “Please Come To Boston,” an inspired choice.

Melissa Ivey, Lovers and Stars

The title track of powerhouse Melissa Ivey’s new EP is getting a lot of airplay in her home state of Colorado. It’s a fine pop tune that suggests a younger Sheryl Crow combined with a smarter Avril Lavigne. But I like the first of the two collaborations with The Knack‘s Berton Averre even more: though it adheres less closely to pop conventions, “Eye on the Door” fits Ivey’s sultry voice like a wet, torn t-shirt. Her voice, and the CD’s smoky production, polishes the dark cores at the songs’ hearts, digging deeper into the soul than one expects from such a young singer.

The dramatic climax of the other Averre co-write, “Everywhere and Nowhere,” comes as an almost Bowie-esque crescendo, while the fun, punked-out “Far Away” owes more to the riot grrl bands. On the evidence of this limited sample, Ivey has a touch that makes whatever she tries work for her, including the sophisticated folk-pop closer, “No Ties To Break,” whose gorgeous little melody grabs on and won’t let go. Ivey is a big talent we should be hearing a lot more from soon.

Extended clips here.

The Beautiful Girls, Water

Australia’s Beautiful Girls follow up last year’s international success with a new compilation of songs from their earlier releases. Those CDs didn’t get wide notice outside their native country, so the songs will be new to North American and European audiences. The Caribbean influence is subtler on this disc than on 2005’s We’re Already Gone, and there’s more stress on the funky acoustic skeleton that holds up their liquidy melodies. The sound, reminiscent of the Chili Peppers’ soft underbelly, depends on the band’s ability to serve their songs (all written by singer-guitarist Mat McHugh) by holding back rather than pressing forward. Indeed, it’s music that makes you lean back – at least mentally – as you tap your feet and bob your head.

The band depicts a variety of moods using a small palette. The dreamy reflectivity of “Periscopes” slides into the sly “Morning Sun,” whose positive lyrics jostle effectively with tense minor chords. The raw “Water” flows into a barely-there instrumental called “First Sign of Trouble.” The centerpiece of the CD is the joyous “Music”: “‘Cause I got music and it makes me feel all right… and I got it every day.” That’s true wisdom, y’all.

In a few of the softer, more contemplative tracks like “Freedom” and “I Need To Give This Broken Heart Away” the tension drops out and, with it, too much of the musical energy. But the reggae-ish “Weight of the World” points ahead to the band’s lively, mature style. In sum, this compilation has its weaknesses, but fans of We’re Already Gone and of McHugh’s shades-of-grey writing and carefully thrown-away vocals will probably like it – at least to tide them over till a release of really new material.

Vicki Genfan, Up Close and Personal

The Jaco Pastorius of the acoustic guitar? Ellen McIlwaine squared? The Pat Metheny of New Jersey? Vicki Genfan may be a little bit of all those things, but primarily she is herself: a guitar wizard with jaw-dropping technique and gushing creativity. Her new double CD consists of an instrumental disc and a singer-songwriter disc. The former is a revelation. In it Genfan provides a guitar clinic that’s not in the least clinical. With her acoustic six-string front and center, and tasteful backing here and there from other top musicians, she takes us through an eleven-song odyssey through the workings of a scarily brilliant musical mind.

By comparison, the best that can be said about the singer-songwriter CD is that it’s a solid folk-jazz album that presses Genfan’s awesome guitar technique into the service of material that isn’t going to blow too many people away. That’s not to say it’s not a pleasure to listen to, if you’re in a contemplative mood. Genfan’s vocals are calming and assured. “Don’t Give Up” and “Love Thing” with their smooth 70s-style soul-charged choruses owe more to Stevie Wonder and George Winston than Joni Mitchell, and the pretty jazz ballad “When You Are Winter” gets a nice lift from Gil Goldstein’s Debussy-inspired piano runs. The jazz strain continues with an ethereal cover of Marvin Gaye’s classic “What’s Going On,” dreamily decorated with an udu drum and a Wurlitzer solo by Goldstein.

On the other hand, neither Genfan’s spot-on but laid-back delivery nor the stalwart contributions of her excellent backing musicians can bring the weak Chris Jones song “Ain’t Got Love” to life; “Living in the Country” is a potentially nice song that suffers from a creative hesitancy you never hear in her instrumental work; and the cover of The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” is too new-agey for my taste, although its melody – one of the most beautiful ever written, n’est-ce pas? – comes through without damage.

I confess that even the best smooth-jazz stylings have never floated my boat much, so your knottage may vary. About recommending the instrumental CD, I have no reservations whatsoever. You can listen to extended clips of both discs at the release’s CD Baby page and decide for yourself. Then, whatever you think of what I think, I’ll wager you’ll agree that the amazing Vicki Genfan is a guitar-playing force of nature.

OUT AND ABOUT IN NYC: Kirsten DeHaan and Jodi Jett heated up the basement performance space at Club Midway on Tuesday night. Jett’s set was spoiled by an unpracticed and out-of-tune backing band, but on her new CD Revelations an easy wryness harks back to Lou Reed and Patti Smith while low-tech, moody arrangements read like early Jefferson Airplane channeled through Liz Phair and the Cowboy Junkies. (How’s that for cramming multiple comparisons into one sentence? Just wait, I’ll be reviewing the CD in a future column, one not devoted to happy music.) DeHaan, by contrast, is a nineties-style punk-pop dynamo. Her new 3-song EP is drawing comparisons to Belly and U2, which is fair enough, but her live set is rawer and more punked out. This dualism may simply be in the nature of the pretty, driven, biker-haired Indianan-turned-New Yorker, or it may be smartly planned – or both. In any case it makes her recorded music potentially radio-friendly in more than one circuit – grown up Gen-Xers, college rock, maybe even the Avril LaTween set. A combination of talent, personal intensity and looks might soon turn Kirsten DeHaan into a major indie player… Last night the music stage at Mo Pitkins belonged to neo-folk singer-songwriter Meg Braun, whose stage presence is becoming rapidly more assured as she gets closer to releasing her debut CD. Aviv Roth provided inspired acoustic fills and solos. Braun incidentally proved the value of musical collectives by filling the room with her Maggie’s Music Salon compatriots and their friends. If a bunch of musicians provide mutual support by going to one another’s gigs, they can fill a small room and help earn that night’s performer additional bookings. It’s not a new idea, but it seldom succeeds in practice, musicians being a self-interested bunch. Kudos to Maggies.

Music Review: Indie Round-Up for Oct. 5 2006 – Singleton, Knight, Kobo Town

Anya Singleton, Not Easy to Forget

Anya Singleton is equally comfortable singing jazz, blues, R&B and even rock; her new EP could be described accurately both as a small smorgasbord of styles and as a delicious, sultry concoction of well-crafted original material perfect for her style. Her voice is passionate but knowing, more warm than cool, and she puts her excellent technique in the service of the song – not the other way around, as jazz singers sometimes do.

However, to my ear, the most enjoyable thing about this EP, along with Singleton’s delivery, is how the original songwriting (by Singleton, guitarist Michael Aarons and keyboardist David Sherman) is so heavily indebted to classic R&B and soul. “I’m Just Fine” is a timeless kind of song in the classic soul tradition, while the title track sounds like one Aretha Franklin could easily have recorded in the 60s. Sherman’s “Slow Man” brings to mind Carole King, while his “Silver and Gold” has an silky Elton John sort of melody. But with all that, the jazzy flavor of the arrangements gives the songs an earthy, acoustic edge they might not have otherwise. The group breaks into more traditional jazz with a solid but unexciting version of Hoagy Carmichael’s “The Nearness of You.” It’s the originality on display in the other songs that makes this short set special.

Extended clips can be heard here.

Chris Knight, Enough Rope

Like an angry John Mellencamp, Chris Knight blasts the unfairness of life through stories of small-town and (especially) rural hopes, and the dashed dreams that too often bring them down. Knight lacks the subtlety of some similarly character-driven songwriters like Springsteen and Dylan, but subtlety isn’t his aim; hoarse passion and evocative imagery give this pissed-off holler of an album its force. Knight’s originality, in the context of heartland rock, lies in his advocacy of the small farmer rather than the suburban hard-luck case or union laborer. His axe hits squarely: “I watch them tear it all to hell/What used to be my church/Tearing up my Grandpa’s land/Treating my Grandpa’s land like dirt.” But there’s defiance, too, in grainy tales like “William’s Son,” a highlight of his powerful live show: “And every now and then I kneel and pray/That things will get better one of these days/But I’ll spit in your eye and stand my ground/Just to keep my head from hanging down.”

Producer Gary Nicholson, who has worked with everyone from Etta James to George Jones, makes the CD sound both perfect and real, and he and others have some co-writing credits. But this is Knight’s show, the product of one man’s skilfully honed, often damning vision.

Kobo Town, InDependence

Photo by Matt Howe

Toronto-based reggae-calypso band Kobo Town, brainchild of Trinidadian singer, songwriter and bandleader Drew Gonsalves, is named for the old Port-of-Spain neighborhood that birthed traditional calypso. Though the band’s sound is best described as pan-Caribbean, its inspiration and subject matter have firm roots in the history of Gonsalves’s native land, of whose turbulent history he speaks with poetic specificity and force.

In “Trinity” he looks down on the land from an airplane: “Her clothes were torn, and her shirt was all tattered/Her eyes downcast, every hope and joy scattered/Dream of my past, bright memory shattered/but I adore her still ’cause I know that all that don’t matter.” In other songs (“Abatina,” “Beautiful Soul”) he focusses closer in, examining the lives of individuals. And in “Blood and Fire” he casts his eye on the wider stage of the whole suffering world: “From Gaza to Jaffna, blood and fire/Soweto to Rio, blood and fire…What must fall to be free, blood and fire.”

But Gonsalves and his able eight-piece band couch the messages in bouncing beats that elevate the spirit. Flute and violin lines slither through the clever arrangements; Gonsalves himself handles the guitar and cuatro; and Kellylee Evans contributes some laserlike guest vocals. Fans of Caribbean music, world music in general, and meaningful songwriting should grab this CD when it’s released next month (check this space for an announcement) – it’s a beauty.

OUT AND ABOUT: You can read a little about my trip to Nashville here. Since then I’ve been more out like a light than out and about. Zzzz… wake me up when the Foley scandal is over.

Indie-Cision 2006: An American In Nashville

Indie-cision [n]: a state of confusion over the question of what the heck is what in the music business

Category creep [n]: the process whereby a category expands to include more and more instances and eventually all instances, whereupon it ceases to be a category

Kenyata has mastered networking and the art of focus. Originally from a small Texas town and now based in Wilmington NC, he talks at a New York City clip – but about anything except his music, which he leaves to speak (and scream) for itself. That, whether he realizes it or not, makes him more interesting.

A cherub-faced Southern gentleman with piercing eyes, Kenyata turns into a monster of rock on stage. He and his band The Majestic Twelve played a full-throttle 30-minute set recently at Club Midway. Though he hadn’t appeared in New York City in a decade and was largely unknown to the local press and tastemakers, the room was filled with fans, hob-nobbers and well-wishers. Why?

Force of personality, for one thing. Kenyata’s, mostly. But creative public relations played a major part. The band’s publicist joined forces with a New York based trade publication and artist development company called Music Dish to promote a series of showcases for indie bands deemed worthwhile for no other reason than being interesting, and good.

But what does it mean to be indie?

The traditional distinction between indies and majors has, in fact, lost its meaning, according to Kenyata, who mentions by contrast some underground indie labels from the “good old days” that grew, more or less organically, out of a scene: Bomp, SST, Alternative Tentacles. Today things have changed: everyone wants “indie cred,” including labels that are distributed by or even owned by the majors. Matador, says Kenyata emphatically, is not an indie. That’s not technically true, but the point is that large, mainstream independent labels with big-selling artists have access to the same – or equivalent – brick-and-mortar distribution channels as the majors. Kenyata’s band, along with the vast majority of musical acts, does not.

I named my CD review column “Indie Round-Up” on purpose to give myself enough latitude to cover practically anything I was interested in. I’m not interested in writing about the music that’s coming out on the major labels today, even when I like it. What would be the point? It’s already everywhere. I dig Shakira, but you sure don’t need to hear me talk about her. Whereas you’d probably never heard of The Majestic Twelve – and now you have. And it’s a great band. So, chalk one up for me.

Kenyata prefers to talk about “independence” rather than “indie.” He means, not freedom from a major label, but artists being in control of their music and of the careers they try to build around it. The bands that developed under and comprised the indie labels of decades past worked, in many ways, harder than major label bands had to work. In the process they built scenes and communities.

Artists today need to learn from those predecessors. Kenyata talks of “constantly finding ways of doing things that other people haven’t thought of before, working to put us into a position where we can compete” with bands that have major distribution or label backing.

Case in point: the Majestic Twelve’s new video looks like an expensive major label production. But it isn’t – not even close. Kenyata tracked down the makers of an old Norwegian undersea film that had captivated him years earlier; bought worldwide rights to the footage for a tiny fraction of what the film had originally cost to make; and used it to construct the video for his new single.

Brilliant. Not because having a good video is the be-all and end-all, but because with something this good his band can stand out from the pack. The band’s videos are getting significant play on the Internet and have been licensed by Fuel TV.

Issuing a press release not about his music or video, not about the political messages in his lyrics, but about how the term “indie” has lost its meaning, was a pretty good idea too. Though not earthshaking, or even particularly original, it caught my attention.

So what, if not “indie,” should we call the vast majority of artists who don’t have major record deals?

DIY (“do it youself”) might do, except that it already refers to the bottom section of a three-part pyramid with “major” at the top and “indie” in the middle. That distinction dated from the heyday of indie rock, when DIY referred to artists who did everything completely on their own. But it was a weak distinction even then, since artists on indie labels always had to do a lot themselves, as noted above.

I don’t have an answer to this terminology question, but in the end, what artists are doing is more important than what they’re calling themselves, particularly now that the digital age has opened up so many avenues, which make things both more exciting and more frustrating. The possibilities seem endless now – but so does the competition. CD Baby, the top online CD store devoted to independents, alone carries the work of nearly 150,000 artists. Myspace, which plans to further commercialize its popularity by becoming a for-pay digital music download hub, claims three million band pages in its stable. And – argh – I’m one of them.

So, to get a fresh perspective and try to alleviate my “indie-cision,” I left New York in a rented Chevy Cobalt and headed to Nashville for the Americana Music Conference. But first I stopped in Raleigh to visit my cousin Z and hopefully meet some real Southern people.

Z, a New York transplant, has been boning up on country music – listening to the hits in her car, singing them on a home karaoke setup. At her Monday night poker game, I met some local neighbors. We played them my roots-country-rock CD and they dug it.

Real Southern people having dug my music, I went to sleep happy.

Chevying towards Tennessee the next day, I stopped for lunch in artsy Asheville NC. Like a miniature San Francisco, it’s full of artists and musicians trying to walk along the street without falling down the town’s steep mountain slope. The server at the pastry shop where I buy coffee noticed my Duke Gardens t-shirt – I’d visited the famous Gardens in Durham the previous day, while Z was at work – and told me she’s from “right near there.” I suspect that a great many of the people I saw in Asheville that beautiful afternoon were transplants from as far away as the touring bands who were booked to play the Orange Peel.

That evening, shaking from too much driving, I washed up at a gas station in Harriman TN to buy a map. Then I followed a sign that pointed down a hill to “live bluegrass music.” Only on weekends, I guess; that sleepy day it was just a riverside park with a .6 mile walking path around it, perfect for stretching out my shakes. Harriman’s good citizens, ambling Southern-slow around their park, looked at me funny as I strode by New-York-fast. I still had some adjusting to do.

I journeyed on to Nashville, where the Americana Music Association was putting on a Conference that showcased artists ranging from the gravelly Ray Wylie Hubbard to the bluegrass family Cherryholmes to the titanic prog-country of Darrell Scott to the angelic harmonies of the Anonymous 4. Luminaries Jim Lauderdale, Mindy Smith, Buddy Miller, James McMurtry, Marty Stuart, and Lee Rocker were present too, among many others.

Those with honored careers already behind them, like Hubbard and Lauderdale, seemed as happy to have a place to belong as did newer artists like Hayes Carll and Chris Knight. “Americana” as a classification or genre is quite new, having been boosted into existence on the strength of O Brother Where Art Thou, and it’s very inclusive. Any new music rooted in American folk forms counts as Americana, from raucous roots-rock to delicate mandolinitry.

And there’s another thing it all seems to have in common: it’s practically all indie.

Its awards ceremony may fill the world-famous Ryman Auditorium, honoring big names like Rosanne Cash, Rodney Crowell and Charlie Daniels; it may have its own radio programs and charts and its own yearly schmoozefest in downtown Music City. But the Americana scene is basically an indie one.

So, whether it’s a basement club in New York hosting art-punkers from North Carolina, or the Austin-based Americana scene descending on Nashville for three days in September, or three crabby middle-aged men with day jobs trying to think of creative ways to sell their music without touring (because of, um, those pesky day jobs) – it’s an indie world, and Shakira just lives in it.

There may be millions of Myspace bands out there, but it is possible, with some creative smarts, to go where no band has gone before.

Music DVD Reviews: Delbert McClinton, Live from Austin TX and John Hiatt, Live From Austin TX

Delbert McClinton is one of those singers who make everything look easy. His buttery voice seems to issue from his smiling lips and fill a concert hall with no effort. He’s followed up his initial push – courtesy of John Belushi and Saturday Night Live – and his 1980 top ten hit “Givin’ It Up For Your Love” with an indefatigable touring career, interpreting great blues, soul, R&B and lounge tunes all over the universe and becoming a noted songwriter as well.

This DVD, issued by McClinton’s label, New West, captures a 1982 Austin City Limits performance by Delbert and a tight nine-piece band. The outfits and haircuts are amusingly dated, the rather stodgy camera work a little less amusingly so – but then, they shot things more simply in those days. ACL was (and is) essentially “just” a TV show. The deep, crystalline sound of the original recording process is the main thing.

The price is modest, so the lack of extras shouldn’t be a deal-breaker for fans, but it is a little disappointing, especially since McClinton has remained very active in the new century, with a new CD and an important part in an upcoming documentary.

Highlights include a funky “Shaky Ground,” a sweet and slow “Jealous Kind,” the Texas swing of “Lipstick, Powder and Paint,” and of course “Givin’ It Up.” Casual or new fans will be interested in McClinton’s treatment of “Take Me to the River,” “Turn On Your Love Light,” and the Otis Redding chestnut “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember.”

Moving from a smooth-as-a-baby master of interpretation to a stage-awkward and unabashedly goofy songwriting genius: the altogether more rough-hewn John Hiatt hit the ACL stage eleven years later. (Note for theme junkies: if you haven’t heard McClinton’s version of Hiatt’s “Have a Little Faith In Me”, one of the most beautiful songs ever written, you really ought to.) Anyway, for Hiatt in 1993 theACL set is lit, and the concert shot, more artfully, while Hiatt’s soul patch and bassist Davey Faragher’s swinging dreads confirm that we’ve pushed ahead into the grunge era of the nineties.

Well before this time, however, Hiatt had succeeded in amalgamating his country, blues and rock strains into a pure, timeless form of songwriting that works anywhere and anywhen. One welcome aspect of this concert is its inclusion of a batch of excellent songs Hiatt hasn’t been performing lately. It’s great to have rocking live versions of “Buffalo River Home,” “When You Hold Me Tight,” “Angel,” “Something Wild,” and “Straight Outta Time,” all from the Perfectly Good Guitar album, which had just been released, and none of which appear on the excellent live CD Hiatt Comes Alive at Budokan? which came out the following year with the same band.

Have no fear, though: you also get the better-known “Memphis in the Meantime,” “Have a Little Faith In Me,” “Thing Called Love” (which Bonnie Raitt made famous), “Tennessee Plates” and “Slow Turning.” The only thing I thought could have been better was Hiatt’s solo rendition of “Icy Blue Heart,” which opens the concert. Some of the song’s aching beauty is lost at the speedy tempo he gives it here.

Faragher, who handles most of the backing vocals, was and is one of the best bass players working. Here he locks perfectly with drummer Michael Urbano, his former Cracker batterymate, while Michael Ward (from School of Fish), handles lead and rhythm guitar with guts and gusto, unimpeded by his giant grunge-shorts (or are they man-capris?). Hiatt’s own guitar playing, like his singing, seems lifted straight out of the dirt of ages.

As with the McClinton disc, there are no extras. These are pure concert videos, remixed and remastered. However, since the shows were originally edited down to fit the ACL half-hour format, the discs in the series contain much previously unreleased material. (I also have the Richard Thompson disc, which I’ll write about in a future column.)

Format: DVD Stereo / DTS
Video: Good
Sound: Very Good
Extras: None

Music Review: Indie Round-Up for Sept. 14 2006 – Special All-Blues Edition

First up this week is Abbie Gardner, who, after I talked about her in an earlier column, was kind enough to send me her CDs. Then I survey some of the best bands on the Long Island, NY blues circuit. Thanks go to the Downstate New York Blues Association for introducing me to some of these bands, as well as helping to create the scene where they can develop and thrive.

Abbie Gardner, Honey On My Grave

Abbie Gardner‘s new roots-blues release is as rich and sweet as the honey in the title. Her dobro and guitar playing is assured, her voice naturally gorgeous, and her singing a completely organic-sounding synthesis of dusky blues, jazzy sexiness, and vibrato-free folk tones. The mostly self-penned songs range in style from the sly country-blues of the title track and the simple folk beauty of “One Love” to the bluegrassy “Ohio” and the bawdy novelty of “Caffeine.”

“Sweet Georgia Pines” is pretty – it’s hard to imagine Gardner doing anything that isn’t – but a little too self-consciously homespun for my taste, while “Dreams” is a bit syrupy. But those aren’t major flaws. Her bluesy versions of “Ain’t Misbehavin'” and “Hit the Road Jack” hark back to her jazz background. Finally, if the duet with Pat Wictor on the traditional “You Got to Move” were any more elemental, it would be just a bunch of hydrogen atoms.

Abbie Gardner

Abbie Gardner (Photo by Tim Benko)

Gardner, who is also a member of the Americana trio Red Molly, recently took third place at the Rocky Mountain Folk Festival Song Contest, and those mountains are pretty high, so I guess third place is excellent. In any case, this CD – engineered and mixed by the redoubtable Mic Rains – wins a place in my iTunes library.

Available, with extended clips, at CD Baby.

Breakaway, Live at The Viking

For some cookin’ Chicago-style blues, you can’t go wrong with Breakaway, one of Long Island’s premiere blues outfits. The two-guitar attack by co-leads Lou Carrollo and Howie Haber, along with sophisticated songwriting, make Breakaway stand out. Guitar fireworks burn up the stage in the long jams “Down the Line” and “The Bottle,” while the duo’s writing skill is on generous display in the slower, more emotional songs like “Everybody’s Talkin'” and “Get Out and Love Somebody.” And don’t miss the wailing piano solo from guest Tommy Keys on the crawlin’ “Gambling Man on a Killin’ Floor.” While not a replacement for a live show, this CD is a good taste of Breakaway’s powerful kind of blues.

Available at their website and at CD Baby.

The Dog House Blues Band, Self-Titled

As a native Long Islander, I love to see when a great original band develops out of the Island’s tired classic-rock cover band scene. I use the term “original” for the Dog House Blues Band not because they do their own songs, but because of their creative approach to putting together their sets. Fueling their excellent musicianship and good-time energy is a knack for finding wonderful obscure blues songs which they arrange tightly and inventively and make their own. These, combined with a smattering of more familiar blues and blues-rock covers, make Dog House more deserving of the term “original” than many bands that write their own material.

Their new, cleanly produced studio album (not yet available online) shows the band having just as much fun with Willie Dixon’s “When the Lights Go Out” as with the Beatles’ “Oh Darling.” If you’re in the area and looking to have a great time with a live band, it would be hard to do much better.

Joe Vicino & the Smokedaddys, Shine

The latest, relatively mellow CD from Joe Vicino & The Smokedaddys follows the Eric Clapton tradition, with a lot of lyrical writing and a smaller amount of rockin’ blues. Guitarist and singer Vicino, who writes the material, shows his sensitive side in songs like the title track, as well as in instrumentals like “Josephine” and “Before You Close Your Eyes,” dolling them up with the silvery, almost pastoral, yet intricate guitar solos at which he excels. His trio rolls out rocking Chicago and Southern electric blues like “You Got It Going On” and “Texas Bound,” while just as comfortably slowing down for numbers rooted in country blues like the Robert Johnson-inspired “Squeezetoy” (with guest Kerry Kearney on slide guitar) and the swampy “Delta Town.” “Black Cloud Blues” has a Stevie Ray Vaughn smoothness, while “Scofflaw Blues” shows off Vicino’s slide mastery.

Music Review: Ted Nash & Still Evolved at the Rubin Museum of Art

New York’s Rubin Museum of Art is a magnificent new institution occupying the former Barney’s, in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. They’ve preserved the store’s majestic central staircase and turned the four-plus floors that wind around it into galleries dedicated to Himalayan art – mostly religious iconography from the region’s Buddhist, Hindu, and ancient Bon traditions.

Unbeknownst to your humble correspondent – who works in an office just a few blocks from the museum – its creators had also built a spacious basement performance space with bell-clear acoustics. Last night I attended the first in the museum’s all-acoustic jazz series. Because it’s co-sponsored by the new Jazz Museum in Harlem (which doesn’t have its own space yet), the concerts are collectively called “Harlem in the Himalayas.” Yes, it’s in the basement, not on top of a mountain – but at least the ceiling is high. And the sound is warm and clear. Tenor saxophonist and flautist Ted Nash, with Frank Kimbrough on piano and the indomitable Rufus Reid on bass, played two short but sparkling sets completely un-amplified – no amps, no mics, no speakers whatsoever.

Except for the musicians being on a high stage – and thanks partly to the tables interspersed among the rows of comfortable chairs – it felt like an intimate club, but without the clattering of glasses and interruptions from the wait staff. (There is no wait staff. Drinks and snacks can be bought at the spiffy new bar upstairs and brought down.)

Highlights of Nash’s sets included Andrew Hill‘s “Tripping.” Reid had played on the original recording, and Nash and Kimbrough joked about how they knew the song better than the bassist. A lovely, spacious rendition of Kimbrough’s ballad “Joie de Vivre” made a fitting tribute to the late saxophone great Dewey Redman, who died last month. Kimbrough had recently been in Redman’s band and you could feel the warmth in his playing. A hilarious romp through Thelonious Monk’s “Green Chimneys” closed the first set.

Jazz, perhaps more than any other kind of music, can be appreciated in a multitude of ways, maybe because it’s simultaneously visceral and cerebral. Its improvisatory nature, its roots in rhythmic forms like the blues and New Orleans march music, and its tendency to mimic the sounds of the human voice and body – the popularity of the saxophone in jazz is no accident – all appeal to the gut. At the same time, its intellectual and exploratory qualities engage the frontal lobe. In the audience, some laugh at the musical jokes, others don’t. Some sit meditatively through a hummable song while others sway and tap to the beat. Some respond to more demanding pieces, like some of Nash’s and Kimbrough’s modernistic, rhythmically intricate compositions, by listening attentively as if at a classical concert, appreciating every note; others continue to sway as if there were a danceable beat, letting the music wash over them. Even a modestly musical ear appreciates how musicians like Nash and Kimbrough fit common jazz tropes into complex new structures (or nonstructures), like a painter dotting human figures into a fantastic or abstract landscape.

The trio left the world of jazz entirely for one piece, “Kanha’s Trail,” a musical meditation to one of the museum’s most impressive statues. Pictures of items from the collection were projected on a screen above the musicians as they played. Reid drew a remarkable, deep harmonic from his bow which served as the drone under Nash’s fluttery flute melodies and the zithery sweeps Kimbrough took directly off the piano strings.


Kanha, an Indian Adept

These days it’s not hard to see jazz inexpensively in New York, but it would be hard to find a better setting for it than this. This coming Friday, catch clarinetist Ken Peplowski (of Benny Goodman’s last band). On October 6, trombonist Wycliffe Gordon and his band perform a new accompaniment to D.W. Griffith’s epic 1916 film Intolerance – that should be quite an event. The Friday jazz series then resumes on October 20 and runs most Fridays through the end of the year and into next, with performances by Anat Cohen, Christian McBride, electric guitarist Russell Malone, Uri Caine, and many others.

Check the full schedule. Tickets are $15 in advance, $20 at the door, and include museum admission. The museum is open late on Fridays, so you can take in the exhibits either before or after the show.

Music Review: Indie Round-Up for Sept. 7 2006 – Broonzy, Shimabukuro, DiJoseph

Big Bill Broonzy, Amsterdam Live Concerts 1953

Big Bill Broonzy, like Robert Johnson, played but also transcended the blues. Like Mississippi John Hurt, Broonzy – also a Mississippi native, born in 1901 (or possibly 1893, or possibly 1898, but I favor the 1901 theory) – constructed his acoustic concerts out of blues, folk songs, and spirituals. Broonzy had been a pioneer of electric blues, but, finding that his white audiences in the 1950s wanted to hear him play in the old folk styles, he obliged. His spirited, earthy guitar playing, the range of his big voice, and the sheer breadth of his material have insured his place in history as one of the all-time great men of the blues. But few, if any, live Broonzy recordings sound as good as this one, which makes it not just a necessity for completists but strongly recommended for any blues fan.

Broonzy found his most welcoming audiences at that time in Europe. In early 1953, at the top of his game, he played a series of concerts in Holland, two of which were recorded by Louis van Gasteren, who later became a noted filmmaker. The recordings have been known about for decades but never released until now, in this handsomely packaged two-CD box that includes a 48-page booklet loaded with interesting photos, reproduced documents, detailed liner notes, and a new essay by van Gasteren on how the recordings came to be made. Though Broonzy’s busy recording career lasted for three decades, a newly available recording of such high sound quality is most welcome.

“If you want to play the blues,” Big Bill tells his appreciative Amsterdam audience, “the first thing to do is go to a real music teacher and learn the right way first…then after you leave him, then do everything wrong from what he told you to do, and then you’re playing the blues.” The CDs capture the storytelling, joking, and informative song introductions that characterized these informal shows. Broonzy’s preamble to Bessie Smith’s “Back-Water Blues” is heart-stopping in the context of the Katrina recovery. Poor people got the worst of the disastrous Mississippi River floods of the 1920s, with some starving to death waiting to be rescued, and little has changed. Also, the great North Sea Flood of 1953, in which over 1800 Dutch lost their lives, had occurred only days before these concerts. No doubt about it, Big Bill had his callused fingers on the pulse of what life was all about. “‘John Henry,'” he says, “that’s what they call an ‘American folk song’…in Mississippi, where I came from, we call it a work song. [But],” he assures the crowd, “I love to play it, don’t worry about a thing.”

A few songs appear twice, a few others in fragmentary form. There’s a lot of talking from Bill and a bit of appreciation from an actor named Otto Sturman. So don’t expect two hours of pure music. Instead, what you get are big chunks of the way Broonzy’s concerts really went down. They’re well worth the price of admission.

Jake Shimabukuro, Gently Weeps

Uke master Jake Shimabukuro – “one ukelele-playing mofo,” as Blogcritics Fearless Leader puts it – has a new solo album out and it’s a fine one. Eschewing the portentious arrangements he is sometimes prone to, Jake gives us twelve tracks of the uke, the whole uke and nothing but the uke, plus five accompanied but homey “bonus” tracks. He plays many of his own compositions, a few standards from the pop and classical canon, and what has become his signature cover tune, George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” With this small, four-stringed, two-octave instrument Shimabukuro rocks, croons, and soars with a sound that’s as lush as his technique is astounding. When he wails on “Grandma’s Groove” and “Blue Roses Falling” you keep expecting the instrument to shatter, while “Gently Weeps,” “Ave Maria” and “Heartbreak/Dragon” are delicately beautiful. Selections like the Japanese folk song “Sakura” and the jazz standard “Misty” further demonstrate the well-roundedness of his musicianship.

As an introduction to this artist, and to what can be done on the humble ukelele, this CD would be a fine choice. It should also be more to the liking of American roots and world music fans than some of Jake’s more heavily produced, Europop-influenced recordings.

Stephen DiJoseph, Hypnotized

Stephen DiJoseph does many things musical – Celtic, electronic, New Age, instrumental. His latest CD shows him to be a talented singer-songwriter as well. He has a hip but restrained sensibility somewhat akin to that of Sufjan Stevens, while his watery sneer and faintly eerie harmonies bring to mind classic Tom Petty or the power-pop of George Usher. Strains of acoustic folk-rock, Beckish modernism, soft-pedal soul, and drum-n-bass coalesce into a poetic and accessible collection of songs with an original flavor.

Most of the best songs, like “Sunlight,” “Flyin'”, the sax-spiced “Breakaway,” and a cleverly re-imagined “Nights In White Satin” cluster towards the beginning of the disc; it loses some steam halfway through as the writing gets a bit lazy, although “It’s No Mystery” is subtly powerful. DiJoseph’s sure feel for the sound he wants never wanes, however, and even in the less happening sections the music keeps you swaying. At its best, it’s nourishing food for the musical soul.

Available with extended clips at CD Baby.

OUT AND ABOUT: Your still-intrepid reviewer took the music of his band Whisperado on a mini-tour to the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York the other weekend. You can read about these delightful happenings at Whisperado’s Myspace blog.

CD Review: Sam Moore, Overnight Sensational

Perhaps it’s only right that Sam Moore, known almost universally as one-half of soul music’s most famous duo, Sam and Dave, should burst back onto the scene with an album of collaborations. But unlike some “tribute” collections in which a gaggle of guest stars work with a legend, this one hangs together very well.

Moore, always one of soul’s greatest tenor voices, sounds as good as ever. The years seem to have cost him little if any range, and his 70-year-old pipes haven’t lost their physical and emotional power. The song choices are generally inspired. And Randy Jackson’s production must get some of the credit for the artistic success of this project too. This is a Sam Moore album, not a bunch of forced-sounding duets. Abetted by guests from Wynonna and Springsteen to Bon Jovi and Fantasia, Moore and Jackson bring gospel-flavored joyfulness to songs both old (like the Aretha Franklin chestnut “Don’t Play That Song (You Lied),” written by the man who signed Sam and Dave, Ahmet Ertegun) and modern (“If I Had No Loot”). The sound is bouncy and smooth yet not unduly slick. It’s old-school soul at its best, with a universally appealing brightness.

The key is that you could listen to this CD without the liner notes and not be distracted by the different voices that join Sam’s. (“Say, I guess that is Springsteen on “Better To Have and Not Need”! Is that Sam, or Steve Winwood, singing the high part on Paul Carrack’s “Ain’t No Love”?) It’s as if the most soulful songwriters from various walks of musical life were magically deposited right where they belong. Even Sting, whose distinctive yelp sometimes sticks out too much in duets, sounds all right in the old Ray Charles tune “None Of Us Are Free,” and Mariah Carey and Vince Gill team up for some exquisite backing vocals on what may be my favorite track of all, Conway Twitty’s “It’s Only Make Believe.”

Which brings us to the late Billy Preston, who contributed one of his very last performances here, singing his own composition “You Are So Beautiful” along with Sam in a rendition that stands up well next to – although nothing can replace – Joe Cocker’s definitive classic. With Eric Clapton contributing a guitar solo, Robert Randolph on pedal steel, and Billy himself on piano, Preston and Moore wring every drop of emotion out of this simple and beautiful song. Preston’s voice sounds angelic, almost ghostly. It’s a fitting close to a truly fine, and in fact downright inspiring, set of music.

Music Review: Indie Round-Up for August 24 2006 – Bennett, Swann, Angelo

In which an American masters a traditional Japanese instrument; American singer-songwriters keep doing the same old thing, but really well; and Whisperado, the self-proclaimed Greatest Band in the World, sends an emissary to the wonderful wilds of upstate New York.

Elizabeth Reian Bennett, Song of the True Hand

Song of the True Hand is the first CD from the first woman to be certified a Grand Master of the shakuhachi. Elizabeth Reian Bennett’s mastery of the traditional Japanese bamboo flute is evident in every moment of this fascinating hour of music. No recording can replace the experience of sitting in a room (living room, concert hall, cockroach-infested basement, it doesn’t matter) listening to a live shakuhachi performance, but Bennett’s haunting, sliding tones and seemingly infinite variations in attack, volume, and breathiness are quite capable of taking the listener on a deep sonic and spiritual journey even through a pair of stereo speakers.


It’s no accident that this hoary instrument (it may date as far back as ancient Egypt) has been a substitute for Buddhist chanting as sui zen (“blowing zen”). Shakuhachi music can be both meditative and emotional, somatic and abstract, and Bennett makes her selections from several traditions, playing compositions and arrangements from modern times as well as centuries past. She includes a “modernistic” work that bends western melodies to the purposes of the shakuhachi, and ends with an improvisation rooted in her 25 years of immersion in the ancient monk pieces. The patent-pending Indie Roundup cost-benefit music index indicates zero downside to buying this CD, and, especially if you’ve never heard a shakuhachi, you’re in for a treat.

Available with extended clips at CD Baby.

Gregg Swann, Everybody’s Got To Be Somewhere

Gregg Swann make delicious power-pop with a punk snarl swirled in. He records his raspy tenor low in the mix, but one quickly gets used to that, and it ends up actually making the melodies more powerful since you have to listen a little harder for them. Artful harmonies frequently sneak in to the clean, uncluttered arrangements. The songs are brief and to the point, and every single one has a real hook – I kept waiting for the filler, but there isn’t any. Highlights include the mid-tempo “Let Me Get This Straight” with its piano and banjo; the two-minute kick in the butt “Darkness is Cheap” which opens the CD with a bang; the Kinks-like anthem “Hollywood”; and the Americana-leaning “Unremind Me.” But you could sing along with all ten. Swann’s lyrics are as straightforward and well-crafted as his tunes: “When the day is just a sigh/And you’re cold, you don’t know why/Don’t be afraid ’cause when it’s through/The truth hurts, but not as much as it used to.” His meaty guitar work serves the songs well, and the always tasteful and solid drummer Ethan Hartshorn anchors a tight group of backing musicians. (Full disclosure: I’ve worked with Ethan.) This CD is a real find. But crank it up loud to get the full effect.

Available with extended clips at CD Baby.

Nathan Angelo, Through Playing Me

If you’re a fan of blue-eyed soul, Atlanta’s Nathan Angelo is well worth a listen. Hitting the piano like Randy Newman, working his smooth vocals and flowing melodies like Stevie Wonder, crafting dense arrangements like Don Henley, and wrapping emotions around emotions like Kevin So, Angelo has a timeless adult sound that could find a wide audience. As you move through this long CD, great songs like the wry, bouncy “Love Sucks” and the epic title track give way to some in which wall-of-sound bombast threatens to outweigh substance, but even the weaker material is interestingly complex and sweet to listen to. The dramatic “Leigh,” for example, seems to owe something to Coldplay, and “Road Home” is pretty even if there isn’t much to it. In songs like the romantic “Someday Soon” and the verging-on-prog-rock “Twilight” Angelo and his collaborators create entire little worlds.

He doesn’t have the vocal power of some of his predecessors in the genre, but he’s got good control and seems to know, for the most part, how to make the most of his instrument, which includes a supple falsetto. The lyrics, which deal with common themes, are well crafted to fit the music, gluing together common images, terms and phrases with just enough art: “It gives us hope/It gives us faith/That life won’t always be this way/To change the world/To seize the day/Dreams don’t have to fade away.” And he and his co-writers do get more inventive at times, as in “Mary Poppins’ Birds” which is about getting ahead versus what’s really important in life: “I cannot forget about Mary Poppins’ birds/Haven’t you heard/They need some food not just smiles and words… Everytime I think about it, Mary Poppins’ Birds/Reminds me of the words, ‘you gotta give to love’ y’all.” Amen, brother.

Available at the artist’s website.

OUT AND ABOUT: Your intrepid reviewer is taking the music of Whisperado on a mini-tour to the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York this weekend. Wish me luck on my first ever solo tour.

CD Reviews: Indie Round-Up for Aug 10 2006 – Reischel, Weary Boys, Vladeck

This week: three artists who sound just right for summer. Then some pontificating, followed by some gallivanting.

Jason Reischel, Brown Bridge & Green Bridge

Reviewers are imperfect creatures. How we hear and react to something can vary with circumstances. When I first listened to this CD a couple of weeks ago it barely registered on my consciousness. Then I listened to it while slogging through a smelly, 100-degree New York City heat wave, and it was positively refreshing even through crappy speakers. “A Lullaby” and “Roses” set the folky tone with Reischel’s gentle Paul Simonlike vocals and dexterous acoustic guitar work. The feel is Elliot Smith meets Tim Buckley, but there is also an outsider quality to the loose, almost sloppy way in which the instrumental tracks are put together. Reischel’s voice is so wrong for bluesy songs like “Down & Out,” “Torn in Two” and “Acres of Diamonds” that he casts a skewed little spell, while gloomier tracks like the haunting “Locked Door” and the spare “Where Are You Tonight?” are heirs to Townes Van Zandt’s sad songs. Reischel’s pretty melodies do not aim for hookiness, but the CD works as irony-free parlor music.

The Weary Boys, Jumpin’ Jolie

The Weary Boys’ fifth CD in as many years shows the hardworking guitar-and-fiddle roots band in fine form. Though based in Austin TX, they sound much more like backwoods stompers than Austin-Americana scenesters. Thirteen mostly jolly two-and-three chord folk songs, some written by the band members, driven by full-on harmonies, fiddle, and Telecaster, should be enough to bring anyone out of a funk. There’s a variety of styles on display, from love songs (“Your the One I Care For”) and country-bluegrass dances (“Hoot Owl”) to Chuck Berry rock and roll (“Baby’s Got a Hold On Me”) and Hank Williams-style Western soul (“California Sunset”), plus local color via straightforward versions of “Jambalaya” and “Vaya Con Dios” – but every song sounds like the Weary Boys, and that’s fine by me. They know how to write ’em and they know how to pick ’em. The energy is a wee bit more laid-back than you might expect from a band with two guitars, bass, drums and violin, but they are called weary after all. Just remember your bug spray, and you’ll like cooling off with the Weary Boys’ latest.

Available at the Weary Boys website.

Andrew Vladeck, self-titled

New York City banjo icon Andrew Vladeck’s vivid story-songs are made of the best elements of rock, soul and American roots music. In his shaky but cutting vocals and graphically descriptive lyrics you can hear a little Dylan, a little Springsteen, and some blue-eyed soul a la Leon Russell (“3,000 Miles,” “What We Gonna Do!”) “Ringaleevio,” named after a run-and-hide game I haven’t thought about since third grade, sounds like Lou Reed (and he’s even got a song called “Coney Island Baby.”) One could go on picking out specific influences in other songs too, but that wouldn’t do Vladeck justice because they stand on their own. His “Coney Island Baby” is an intense paean to the ancient beach and amusement strip that never ceases to inspire songwriters, novelists and other romantics. Vladeck is a musical citizen of the world and an original voice, crafting appealing songs that twist and turn in surprising ways, both musically and storywise. Imagine if Dylan’s “Hurricane” had a happy ending, and you mind get Vladeck’s “Justice Is Served.” These lyrics from “Chinatown” encapsulate both his New York-centric sense of place and the universality of his stories and images: “You can go to China/or wherever you think will do/But you’re not gonna find happiness unless you bring it with you/You got a long way to China and I got Chinatown.”

Available with extended clips at CD Baby.

OUT AND ABOUT: Heard a story the other day about an indie artist, who shall remain unnamed, being shopped to a major label A&R person (who shall remain unnamed) by an artist rep (who shall remain, etc.) The first question the A&R person asked was not “How old is he?” or “What does he look like?” – which, sadly, are what we’d expect – but rather, “How many Myspace friends does he have?” Now, we all know that people at major record labels don’t have a clue about music, and are concerned instead with looks and with whether a band has gotten a good-sized fan base on its own. But this particular A&R lackey didn’t seem to have a clue about promotion and popularity either. It should be common knowledge among those in the business of popular culture that anyone who has a litle persistence and a bunch of time to sit in front of a computer can amass tens of thousands of Myspace “friends” faster than you can say “Love Potion Number Nine.” No wonder signed artists are fleeing the labels just as fast as their contracts end, while up-and-coming bands are avoiding them like the plague… Speaking of indies, last night folk-blues master Pat Wictor brought a group from his Manhattan Songwriters’ Circle to my local Brooklyn haunt, Night and Day, and while Pat’s and Meg Braun’s sweet music was no surprise, the discovery of the night was the solo performance by singer/songwriter and Dobro player Abbie Gardner, known to me previously only as part of Red Molly. Gardner has an arch bluesiness, and a voice that’s warm as ice and cool as a New York summer, but she can sure write a song too. (Note: her dad is jazz trombonist Herb Gardner who is affiliated with the Smith Street Society Jazz Band. When I was a kid my own dad used to take us to Nathan’s in Oceanside, NY – the huge old Nathan’s with the separate counters for each item of food – to see that very band on Dixieland Night. How ’bout that!)… The Animators rocked up the Living Room last week. A band to seriously watch… Katell Keineg, whose praises I’ve been singing, mostly unheard, for years, has suddenly leapt from playing the aforementioned Living Room to the much bigger Bowery Ballroom, all because of this New York Times Magazine profile (unfortunately it’s “Times Select” so you have to pay for it if you don’t subscribe to that service). I’d be there on August 18 to see Katell if I didn’t have a gig the same night with my band, Whisperado, at the legendary Hank’s Saloon. 9 PM, by the way.

Until next time… happy listening!

CD Review: Karling Abbeygate, self-titled

Music isn’t like fashion. In fashion, a few tastemakers decide “bell bottoms are back,” and voila, bell bottoms are back. Tastes and styles in music change too, but the dynamics are far more complex – chaotic, one might say, like the weather. No one expected O Brother Where Art Thou to spur a popular revival of American folk music, for example. The producers accidentally tapped into the American public’s dormant need for authenticity – and sold millions of CDs.

A few years earlier, Gregorian Chant was all the rage. No one had plotted and schemed to sell a naveful of Chant CDs – it just happened.

Rootsy, authentic-style country music is currently enjoying a revival. National television broadcasts the Americana Music Awards; the new Roots Music Association just signed up its thousandth member without having done anything yet; and front-porch country music scenes are thriving in places as unlikely as Brooklyn (yes, as in “No sleep till”). And while there are savvy promoters behind some of the milieu’s big-name artists, they’re not creating a market so much as capitalizing on one that had been underserved.

Enter British-born songstress Karling Abbeygate and California indie label Dionysus Records. Raised, so the story goes, on a diet of Jim Reeves, Patsy Cline, Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn by a British mother and a Kansan father in Norwich, England, the singer has returned to those roots, changing from an ersatz alt-rock Gwen Stefani into a one-woman 1950s and 60s country music revival. With a vocal style inspired by Cline, a timbre like a higher-voiced Wanda Jackson, and a persona (on record at least) 50% Loretta Lynn, 40% Betty Boop and 10% Emily the Strange, Abbeygate may have just enough sly punkitude to popularize this anachronistic sound, which extends to the clean but deliciously old-fashioned arrangements.


However, since trends in music can’t be engineered with scientific precision, it’s rather to be expected that, whether she ends up a star, a mere blip, or something in between, Abbeygate will remain a unique artist. She certainly has the talent and charm to become a big success.

The CD is comprised of a set of “lost” country songs of the 50s and 60s with titles like “It Don’t Take Much To Get Me By” and “Many Happy Hangovers To You,” plus a handful of Abbeygate’s originals. The latter prove her to be a skilful songwriter, with a sensibility informed by but not enslaved to the old-time country tropes she sings so naturally. “Beg Steal & Borrow” sounds like something Dolly Parton might have written, with Abbeygate exaggerating her redneck accent to humorous and touching affect and John Pinnella contributing a brilliant Dobro solo. “Home Home Home” is a sweet, disarming new song that echoes the Everly Brothers’ “Let It Be Me.” “Tonight Is Gonna Last” is probably the most original original here, with a catchy and sophisticated melody that would make any crusty old Nashville songwriter proud: “I don’t care if in the morning you are gone/’Cause tonight is gonna last a whole life long.” Finally, the dark ballad “Someone Else’s Man” shows off both her songwriting versatility and her heartbreaking juxtaposition of girlish voice with adult themes.

And in fact it’s that magical voice and delivery that sells Karling Abbeygate, through originals and obscure old nuggets alike. In spite of her sometimes exaggerated stylings, you believe every word out of her mouth. (OK, call me a sucker.) And she and her band sound so old-fashioned they sound fresh.

Maybe the very existence of this CD indicates a revival of old-time Nashville sounds (though it was recorded in Los Angeles). More likely, it’s just a happy happenstance. Happy, that is, for us who get to listen.

The heck with bell bottoms, anyway.

Interview/Concert Review: Controlling the Famous

Some bands are made; others were perhaps meant to be, and if so, you can count Controlling the Famous among the latter. Even their name seemed fated: just when the band was deciding what to call itself, the cryptic phrase “Controlling the Famous” appeared high on a downtown L.A. building. They adopted the graffiti tag as their own. It hasn’t been seen since.

In matters more substantial, too, CTF is an organic creation. Although lead singer Max Hellman often takes the lead during an interview, there’s no single mastermind or distinct leader of the group. The four musicians write and arrange together (generally music first, then lyrics), and for the past couple of months have lived together on the road, touring across the Midwest and now hitting the East Coast.

A beautiful New York City sunset was painting the sky orange and aqua over the shimmering East River as I caught up with the band outside Northsix on the waterfront of Brooklyn’s arty Williamsburg neighborhood. Locals and trendoids lined N. 6th St. enjoying the cooler air that the previous night’s storms had brought, but although the stifling heat wave was over, the smell of garbage reminded one that it was still summer in the city. Nonetheless the band expressed great happiness to be in New York, quite sincerely declaring that it was one of their favorite places to play.

The previous night, over 50 fans had greeted CTF in the grungy basement space of CBGB, a pretty impressive turnout considering it was only the band’s second gig ever in New York. Tonight’s crowd, too, is big enough to sweat up Northsix’s small downstairs performance space. Last year, prior to signing with The Militia Group, the band played at the less prestigious Continental, but now, with the support of an energetic indie label, things are different.

For one thing, their new CD, Automatic City, is in the stores, which is very important for bringing out crowds and sustaining interest even in the age of downloads. For another, ads for the disc (and other Militia releases) are all over popular websites like Blogcritics (where this article is cross-posted).

The one thing that hasn’t changed, half-jokes soft-spoken bassist Brendan Hughes, is the lack of money in their pockets, and it’s certainly true that the age of big advances for bands is over. But the men of CTF are pleased as punch to be signed with a good indie label, whose logistical and promotional support makes a big difference. Good turnouts, availability of CDs in local stores, and name recognition outside its home base are tough things for even a talented and hardworking band to achieve. And, for touring bands as well as local acts, New York is one of the toughest towns (even if it does have, according to CTF – three of whose members are SoCal natives – the most beautiful women in the country, hands down).

“If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere” is no idle cliché. NYC audiences appreciate good music but tend to act blasé, having seen and heard (or wishing you to think they’ve seen and heard) everything. With so many touring bands coming through and local ones itching to play, many clubs can and do get away with providing the bare minimum of amenities for both performers and audiences.

CTF has jumped up a level, from clubs where nearly anyone can get a gig to those that feature a more elite slice of the rock universe, but they still have to prove themselves to the trendy crowd, some of whom are still wandering down from the upstairs bar as the band churns through its second song (the punchy, ska-tinged “Detox”), filling the tiny basement space with a huge and rock-hard but unfailingly musical sound. The set is quick and to the point, featuring most of the songs from the tautly constructed CD. The stage has, evidently, a little less integrity than the music: when Hellman and the other guitarist-frontman, Johnny Collins, jump up and down, the amps and drums rock crazily like a skyline swaying in an earthquake so that everything seems to be threatening to collapse in a heap. Music equipment needs to be of the best quality for concerts and shows, the sound needs to travel clearly from the front to the back, sites like Https:// provide this for bands, singers, etc.

A few superfans pump fists and shout along with the lyrics, but there are some new fans in the making and some not-yet-convinced. One could reasonably describe the music as combining the energy and vocal fire of emo-punk with the more moderate tempos of indie rock, but that would capture only part of the creativity in evidence. The band explicitly makes music in reaction to, not imitation of, the dominant styles around them, drawing creative energy from their desire to be different. Their songs are accessible and crowd-friendly but their style is their own, with simple melodies and complex guitar interplay.

Native talent and months on the road have made the band as tight as any out there. Hughes holds down the bottom end with solidly locked-in bass parts. With varied and busy beats the extremely impressive drummer Mike Schneider speaks with his instrument as musically as a guitarist does. Hellmann and Collins combine to brighten up the songs with unisons, harmonies, and trade-off vocal duets. These, layered over intertwined guitar hooks and the abovementioned rhythm section, make for a solid, satisfying set of loud and powerful rock that’s catchy enough for pop cred and interesting enough to capture the attention of a jaded New York City crowd.

At least, it did tonight. Tonight Controlling the Famous turned a bunch of Brooklynite twenty-somethings sick of emo pretention into cheering kids; tonight rock lived. Next year, who knows? A bigger venue, some real cash coming in, a career steadily flowering? The label is betting on it.

CD Reviews: Indie Round-Up for July 13 2006 – Umbrellas, Alec Gross, The Mains

Umbrellas, Illuminaire

Scott Windsor and his band make bright, dreamy pop that’s one part Coldplay, one part Oasis and one part Boy George. The lyrics are well crafted but the songs in general are only serviceable; the sound is what this music is all about. Enlisting programmer James McAlister (Sufjan Stevens) has resulted in a more electronic, keyboard- and synth-heavy album than Windsor’s previous work, but his angelic, reverb-drenched singing remains an important focus of the production. With the exception of the beautiful, acoustic “Tests On My Heart,” the songs play out mostly as sonic dreamscapes, even the most uptempo ones. The danceable “Again and Again,” the rocked-up “Crooked,” the contemplative Radiohead-inspired “Idle and Waiting” and the U2-like drone of “Thinking of You” contrast nicely and the CD hangs together well. Catchy hooks are the main missing puzzle piece. With some more of those, Umbrellas have as much potential as anyone to reach the level of some of the above-mentioned bands.

Alec Gross & the Districts, Win?orLose?

Alec Gross combines Americana and heartland rock with a strain of folksy gentleness and a knack for melody. Raw honesty is the first and deepest impression that these songs make. Gross sings them in an emotional, slightly quavery voice reminiscent of Michael Stipe’s. Themes of lost love and disappointment predominate. “Broken In Two” declares: “Break me in two/One for me and one for you/One man to lie and say he’s true/The other will leave but he’ll still love you.” And the simple, deadly refrain of “Cold Apples” cuts right to the heart: “I will wait/But not for you.” But the songs take every possible viewpoint on the matter. “Joni Mitchell Was Right (1-2-3)” is a funny depiction of glimpsing a former lover looking oh-so-fine, while “Blue-Ribbon Baby” finds the beauty in sad resignation. “Piscataway” and “Just a Boy” are effective, Springsteen-esque depictions of moving away and growing up.

My only criticism is that in the harder-rocking songs the arrangements and guitar sounds are rather old-fashioned – I don’t dislike them, but a more modern sensibility in that area might widen the appeal, especially since the songs and vocals are so winning. (The synth in “Fix My Dreams,” however, which is right out of “Lucky Man,” is the cool kind of retro.)

Available at CD Baby.

The Mains, The Higher You Get, The Higher You Get

This Los Angeles outfit, led by songwriters Foster Calhoun (Vegas DeMilo) and Rich McCulley, makes straightforward, crunchy, catchy pop-rock. Guitars jangle and growl, while Calhoun’s grungy lead vocals alternately soar and snarl. Although it’s not original, and the lyrics are often cliched, the duo makes an inspired songwriting team, working elements of the best rock from the 60s through the 90s into one infectious tune or riff after another. From ballads (“By The Way”) and rumbling retro-rockers (“Rock and Roll”) to delicious power-pop (“Tonight”) and songs inspired by 70s classic rock (“Jaded”), The Mains give good old rock an exciting and muscular workout.

Some time around 1970, the term “rock” began to be used for guitar-heavy, rebellious-sounding pop. Listening to The Mains reminds us that terms like rock and pop, like lines of longitude, are just artificial constructs, while music – if it’s solid and honest like this – is all-natural.

Extended samples available at CD Baby.

Concert Review: Mofro

Mofro, the creation of Florida swamp-soul singer JJ Grey and guitarist Daryl Hance, played an exhilirating, nearly two-hour set of what they like to call “front porch soul” at Southpaw in Brooklyn on Saturday night. The slow and midtempo speeds of most of the songs give Grey ample space to pull the audience in, much like Beck does at his concerts, or Jim Morrison did. Indeed, although Grey’s powerful voice by turns evokes Marvin Gaye and Marty Balin, and though the rich, chugging music owes far more to New Orleans, Memphis and The Band than to L.A., a Mofro show is something like a second coming of the Doors.

Like shamans, the charismatic Grey and his sinuous band build their modestly structured, unprepossessing songs into small volcanoes of emotion, with the audience supplying half the energy. It’s enough to begin to restore one’s faith in the vitality of live rock. With organist Adam Scone covering the bass parts (another Doors-like trait), Hance laying down simple but deep guitar parts, and drummer George Sluppick creating a wide, drawling pocket, Grey moves between guitar, electric piano and harmonica, playing simple lines and solos – nothng fancy, but like his singing, bluesy and elemental.

A Bo-Diddley-beat rave-up with a guest sax player, and a few other quick mini-jams, helped to get the blood flowing, but the slower songs carried the most weight, whether celebratory or sad. Highlights included “Fireflies” and a gospel-intense cover of “Do Right Woman,” as well as Mofro’s signature ballad “Lochloosa.” The music contains a fair amount of lamentation for a rapidly disappearing world of easygoing Southern Americana, northern Florida style. But if a jaded New York City audience can respond so brightly to Mofro, then at least we know the human spirit – as exemplified by music, naturally – can’t be developed out of existence as easily as can the land.

CD Reviews: Indie Round-Up for June 29 2006 – Adamson, Vecchione, Next Wave Compilation

Barry Adamson, Stranger on the Sofa

What is this? How should I know? Why do I like it? I don’t know. It’s a mishmash of electronica, pop, experimental music and noise-rock, with a sensibility so tentacled and topsy-turvy that it feels unnecessary to worry about what to make of it.

Barry Adamson has been part of two very different bands: Magazine, and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. There’s some of the latter on this record, not much of the former. “The Long Way Back Again” is a good pop song. “Officer Bentley’s Fairly Serious Dilemma” has one section that is also a good pop song but then it becomes a radio-communication thing and then a swollen funk jam. Later on the record there’s some stuff that makes me think of Eno and Weill. There’s also some stuff in French. The Bowie-esque “Theresa Green” is sweet sweet sweet. And the coolest thing of all? Hardly any of it is set to dance beats. (If I never hear another dance beat in my life…)

Every section has not just its own sound but its own groove. Noir moods, Euros, easy sounds, clanky sounds. Is that why I like it? What is it, actually? Who is this guy? And what’s this about working with Barry White a few years ago? That doesn’t make any sense. I like things that don’t make sense. This is a CD that I like. Do you like it? I like it.

Laura Vecchione, Deeper Waters

Laura Vecchione’s dark, throaty voice and biting harmonies are reminiscent of Stevie Nicks, while the thoughtful tone of many of her original songs suggests Rosanne Cash. But she also has a playful side, something that’s lacking in certain Nashville stars (hence the enormous popularity of the gimmicky but fun Big and Rich). That, combined with the high quality of her songs (eight of these ten are originals), makes this soul-splashed country-rock CD a winner.

The opening track, “Jane,” is a towering anthem of self-assertion in the best tradition of stand-tall country singles. “Fool’s Gold” is a minor-key haunter in the vein of Patty Loveless, with Vecchione wringing every possible drop of emotion out of the dusky lyrics. It’s also a good example of genre-crossing, reminding me as much of soul-rockers like Nicola as of traditional country singers like Loveless.

The lovely, unusually well-written ballads lean towards the pop end of the country spectrum, with the exception of “Breaking Heart in NYC,” a slow, sweet shuffle whose country-and-western swagger is lit up by an old-timey clarinet solo.

On the lighter, uptempo side, Vecchione’s cover of the Beatles’ “Lady Madonna” bops nicely, and her rendition of Dr. John’s “Qualified” is inspired (actually, “kick-ass” is the technical term that comes to mind).

The CD is good enough that one is led to think carefully about whether Vecchione, a passionate and technically expert singer, has quite enough heft to her voice to rise to the top of country music. Her voice tugs at the heart, breaking, calling, and twanging, but is it rich enough? Is she fundamentally a country singer, or a roots-rock/pop singer like Melissa Etheridge or Sheryl Crow? At the top level of the recording industry, where standards and specifics are pretty unforgiving, these things tend to matter. Meanwhile, such questions aside, Vecchione is forging her own path to excellence.

Various Artists, Next Wave

Norine Braun solidifies her reputation as a tastemaker of distinction with her new Braun and Brains compilation, Next Wave. These twenty songs represent the cream of the crop from an enormous variety of styles. Braun’s own “Crystallize” is a scintillating, flute-laced pop bauble, so infectious even her mispronunciation of “mischievous” comes off as ingratiating. Other highlights of the CD’s glossy first half include Public Symphony’s subtle chamber pop “Rise & Shine,” Morgan’s creepy “Nice Day (For a Murder),” and Katrina Parker’s ballad “Killing Me,” which snakes jazzy singer-songwriter passion through a dramatic piano-pop arrangement. Greg Summerlin’s rather banal lyrics in “I Would Fight” are lifted by an aggressively sunny and charming arrangement of jangly guitars, and the track from David Z will please Madonna fans, as will Flow’s jerky blue-eyed hip-hop R&B.

The compilation’s first rock track is ecb‘s fine “Francis and Matilda,” which sounds like a collaboration between the Rolling Stones and ELO. Bulgaria’s Liliput Project checks in with a timeless-sounding trance-electronica piece, and then the CD’s biggest-name contributor, Marwood, shows why Benji Rogers’s voice and songwriting have made the band such a hit in the past year with the crystalline, acoustic guitar driven pop-rock of “Name To Me No More.”

“Prince Meets Paul Weller” is not a bad description of NYC native Raymond Fiore, whose John Popper-esque vocals elevate his compact soul-rocker “Spin the Wheel” into one of the compilation’s top tracks. “A Waste In Vain” by Sweden’s Celebrate the Sun has a catchy chorus, if garbled English, and then there’s a change in direction towards the rootsy with Tracy Stark’s torchy jazz ballad “Morning Light” and Minimal’s quirky, tuba and mandolin-driven “Crescent City” which sounds like it could almost have been a 1970s western TV show theme song. Indiegrrl founder Holly Figueroa’s unique, deceptively sharp-edged chamber-folk style is well represented by “How It Is.” Australia’s Hopkinson has done better than the vaguely pretty but ulimately limp “No. 5,” but Anthill has an engaging Canadian take on 1990s British pop, and guitarist Dave Hart’s impressive and moody “Mexican Sonata” really is in something approaching sonata form. Finally, Australian Megan Laurie checks in with a solid, straight-ahead country tune, “Light at the End of the Bottle.”

Few if any listeners will like every track on here, but you could do much worse than using Norine Braun as your funnel to top-notch pop of many styles.

Book Review: Hotel California: The True-life Adventures of Crosby, Stills, Nash, Young, Mitchell, Taylor, Browne, Ronstadt, Geffen, the Eagles, and Their Many Friends

Our love for music often extends beyond listening to it. We want to know about the people who write and sing the songs that bring us the most joy.

There’s no shortage of popular mythology – and hence books – about, for example, Haight-Ashbury, Woodstock, Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead and all the drugs and music that helped define the hippie generation. Plenty of legends – and hence journalism – arose from the punk movement too. And Motown, the Beatles, Doo-Wop and jazz all have their devoted scribes and historians.

Enter British journalist Barney Hoskyns, the former editor of Mojo, to fill in a notable gap. What happened between Altamont and disco? How did David Geffen come tantalizingly close to his impossible dream of creating an “American Beatles” out of four bickering North Americans named Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young? How did the Eagles, with their perfect (too perfect?) symbiosis of country and rock, come to be the most popular band in America? How did Linda Ronstadt, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne and Little Feat fit in?

Do you care?

If you are among the millions to whom their music means something, there’s a good chance you do care, and Hoskyns’s book will interest you. A speedy, somewhat disorganized tour through the L.A. musical mileu circa 1966-75, Hotel California is loaded with interesting stories and observations about those and other artists along with the managers, label execs, and hangers-on who helped create the scene.

One of the book’s virtues is a taut style that conveys a lot of information in crisp bursts of prose. Equally important is Hoskyns’s extensive research, based on a huge trove of contemporary sources and a great many of his own new interviews.

The biggest lesson of the endeavor may be that this important music scene depended upon a successful symbiotic relationship between artists and producers (both the studio-engineering kind and the money kind), based on a mutual feel for music and for popular taste. For every ambitious (and by all accounts obnoxious) Stephen Stills, who created the seminal Buffalo Springfield, there had to be an A&R man like Warner-Reprise’s Lenny Waronker:

A native Angeleno, Waronker was… intrigued by a new strain in the L.A. sound: a countryish, back-to-the-roots feel heard in songs by the Byrds and other groups. “My goal was very simple,” he says. “It was to find a rock band that sounded like the Everly Brothers”… When [he] saw the Springfield live they were wearing cowboy hats, with Neil Young positioned to one side in a fringed Comanche shirt. He went beserk: “I thought, ‘Oh, my God, this is it!‘”

“For the new back-to-the-earth minstrels – chilling out in split-level cabins with their cats and patched-denim jeans, penning soul-searching songs about themselves and each other – living in Bel Air and driving a Rolls-Royce simply wasn’t hip,” Hoskyns explains. Instead they congregated in woodsy Laurel Canyon, where Joni Mitchell and soon-to-be-legendary manager Elliot Roberts arrived in early 1968 “from New York, where the Greenwich Village folk scene was petering out before their very eyes.”

Certainly some qualities of that time and place nurtured a musical movement with an identifiable sound, but the book’s analysis can be a little confusing. If it was the time when the solo singer-songwriter came into his and her own, why were the Eagles the scene’s biggest commercial success story? Was the public really, already in 1968, worn out by loud rock, as Robert Shelton wrote in the New York Times and Hoskyns quotes with approval – had “the high-frequency rock’n’roar… reached its zenith”? The public seemed ready for smooth country-rock from James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt and Jackson Browne, but was that precisely the same public that had been grooving, as Happy Traum described it in Rolling Stone, to “psy-ky-delick acid rock and to the all-hell-has-broken-loose styles of Aretha Franklin and Janis Joplin” (not to mention Jimi Hendrix, the Who, and the Rolling Stones)? The book doesn’t delve deep enough to answer questions like this.

Of course the age of loud music was anything but over. But although the book may overestimate the importance of the direction popular music took in Southern California in this period – as distinct from the popularity and intrinsic value of the music itself – it still draws an engaging and useful picture of that time and place, from the singer-songwriter-fueled genesis of country-rock to its burning out in a blaze of rock star excess in the mid-70s.

By necessity, given the amount of ground Hoskyns covers in a fairly short book, the portraits of the major players are sketchy, which can get frustrating. The outsize talents and personalities of people like David Crosby, Joni Mitchell, Lowell George, Neil Young, Linda Ronstadt, Gram Parsons and Don Henley are a big chunk of the story, yet they’re brought to life only with little anecdotes, quotes and scraps of detail. (Interestingly, David Geffen jumps off the page more vividly than do most of the artists.)

Fortunately, Hoskyns includes an extensive Suggested Reading section. Personally I recommend starting with Crosby’s autobiography, Long Time Gone – it’s a wonder that man is still alive. Meanwhile, for an overall picture of the scene, with some valuable if not definitive analysis, Hotel California is a useful source and an enjoyable read.