Archive for the ‘Americana’ Category

Album Review: Sid Griffin — The Trick is to Breathe

Wednesday, January 14th, 2015

In the immediate wake of the excesses brought forth by psychedelia, popular (rock) music took a decided turn toward the simpler, more pastoral. Mere months after Cream were hitting the charts with “Sunshine of Your Love” and Jimi Hendrix was endeavoring to stand next to our fire, groups like The Band were finding success with a much more toned-down, sepia-tinted sort of music. That style owed more to acoustic instruments, even when they were employed in rock fashion.

While the charts splintered into genres as the 70s wore on, this simpler (dare I say softer) approach was taken to another level – a higher or lower one, depending on one’s need for rock in their musical diet – with the rise of the sensitive singer/songwriter. For all his merits, James Taylor exemplifies this turn away from the visceral in popular music, at least for a significant portion of the listening public.

But before the singer/songwriters took hold, and in connection with the pastoral approach, some very interesting (and creatively fertile) things were happening in popular music. The Byrds, Poco, Moby Grape and a few others had been investigating the sweet spot where rock and more acoustic-based forms met, and the results were sometimes exemplary. But the hybrid style didn’t gain a strong foothold in the pop marketplace.

Not right away, anyhow. But more than a decade later, concurrent with the rise of what is sometimes called the paisley underground movement, a number of musical artists took another look at combining rock and folk (and/or country) styles. There wasn’t really a succinct name for the hybrid then – today we might call it proto-Americana – but the music from artists such as The Blasters and Lone Justice had as its foundation that commingling of musical genres.

And without a doubt the giant among these was The Long Ryders. Led by guitarist (and player of other stringed instruments) Sid Griffin, The Long Ryders could be pointed to by decided fans of hard-rocking music of the 80s as the one “twangy” band that they really, really dug. The group folded near the end of the decade (happily they reunite on occasion), and the members went their various ways. Griffin continued to cultivate his career as a writer, a curator of music, and a musician with solo albums. He also started a group called The Coal Porters; almost wholly rooted in Americana-type instrumentation, they also rocked.

Griffin’s latest album, The Trick is to Breathe, combines the best elements of the hybrid rock-Americana style, and it’s also a lyrics-focused album that fans of the singer/songwriter genre will find very rewarding. It’s most certainly not a rock record – there’s not a note of electric instrumentation to be found – but it has an undeniable (if hard to pin down) rock sensibility about it. Griffin’s vocals are mixed right out front, allowing listeners to follow along in his story-songs without straining their ears. On the gentle “Ode to Bobbie Gentry,” Griffin makes the observation that “no one ever comes to no good in the show-biz world,” but the fact that he’s making albums like this strongly suggests otherwise. “Blue Yodel No. 12 & 35” is a bluegrass romp, but one that’s fun and free of artifice; even an avowed non-grasser such as this writer can’t be helped but drawn in by the lighthearted lyric set against a familiar melodic structure. Maybe it’s purely coincidental (and maybe not), but “Circle Bar” is vaguely reminiscent of Tom Rush‘s reading of Joni Mitchell‘s similarly-titled “The Circle Game.”

Griffin’s gentle mandolin plucking is at the center of “Between the General and the Grave,” and some melancholy fiddle work helps create a fragile ambience for this tale of war. Perhaps the most interesting track on The Trick is to Breathe, “Elvis Presley Calls His Mother After The Ed Sullivan Show” is also the track that sounds the most like The Long Ryders. This fanciful rethink of an imagined conversation between the King and Gladys Presley is warm and sentimental, painting a portrait of Elvis when he was young and relatively innocent (“I’ll still be your son when all is done”). Griffin’s Elvis conveys some hard-earned wisdom to his mother: “Mama, never party after the show.” Musically, it’s a cousin to “Harriet Tubman’s Gonna Carry Me Home,” from The Long Ryders’ 1987 LP Two Fisted Tales. Whatever its provenance, it’s a delight.

“Everywhere” is the album’s longest track, and it waits until more than halfway through to change up the arrangement. But it’s worth the wait, with some wonderful close harmony vocal work. A reinvention of the sixties folk-rock classic “Get Together” is nearly unrecognizable, but in Griffin’s capable bluegrass-centric hands, the old adage “a good song is a good song” is proved yet again. With its fade-in and fade-out, the brief, clanging instrumental “Front Porch Fandango” sounds for all the world like a spontaneous jam that happened to get caught on tape; more of it would be even better.

“Punk Rock Club” is a bizarre – yet enthusiastically welcomed – left turn on The Trick is to Breathe. On this spoken-word track, Griffin recites a collection of comments, perhaps from selected audience members. In their most deadpan voices, Griffin and his friends give us lines such as, “Why is the singer so angry?” and “Why does the drummer hit so hard?” This piss-take of rock’s poseur tendencies is very knowing, and very, very funny. The crosstalk near the track’s end is reminiscent of some of the experiments Robert Fripp did with The Roches on his The League of Gentlemen album.

The gentle guitar picking on “Who’s Got a Broken Heart” finds Griffin with both feet in singer/songwriter territory. He reaches deep and pulls out a more nuanced vocal than is typical, and subtle cello sawing adds the perfect accompaniment. The three-quarter time story-song “We’ve Run Out of Road” feels like the kind of song Willie Nelson comes up with at his best. Griffin’s careful arrangement touches help the song strike the perfect balance between slick and down-home.

Griffin wraps up the stellar album with “I’ll Forget You Very Well,” a high-speed bluegrass tune that riffs on tried-and-true phrases and lyrical snippets that overtly reference Bob Dylan and The Beatles (“No Direction Home,” “I Saw Her Standing There,”) all put to clever, smile-eliciting use.

The Trick is to Breathe is a start-to-finish triumph.

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Best of 2014: New Music, Part 1

Monday, December 29th, 2014

In my blog posts of last week, I surveyed some of my 2014 favorites: music-related books; DVDs; concerts; and interviews. For these last few days of the year, I’ll wrap up with a look at my favorite music of 2014, specifically new and reissued titles. Today, it’s four of my eight favorite albums of new music released in 2014.

Night Beats – Sonic Bloom
I make no apologies for the retro-mindedness that pervades my favorite new music. I’m one of those who believes that the mid-sixties gave popular music (rock in particular) its best material. And I daresay the members of Night Beats agree; everything about Sonic Bloom screams 1966. But that doesn’t mean one needs to be a garage-punk aficionado to dig them. When reaching for a modern corollary, I tend to think of Night Beats’ music as a more tuneful rethink of the sort of thing Black Angels (another favorite) create.

Jimbo Mathus – Dark Night of the Soul
I was never any sort of fan of Squirrel Nut Zippers, so I didn’t approach the solo music of Jimbo Mathus with anticipation of finding much I’d dig. But what I discovered – first on his blue vinyl EP, then onstage in and person at the 2013 Americana Fest, then on Dark Night of the Soul – was the work of a man who appreciated, understood and (most importantly) synthesized various American musical forms, creating something very much his own. Mathus’ wide-screen style suggests a more rock-minded version of The Band, with hints of Alex Chilton‘s wild devil-may-care abandon. You can hardly beat that.

The Last – Danger
Middle-aged guys playing thrashy punk? Yeah, that happens. This high-speed rock owes a debt to The Minutemen and the stop-on-a-dime pyrotechnics of Fugazi and Hüsker Dü. But piano in the mix? Didn’t see that coming. And combo organ, and vocal harmonies? Hey, that’s unexpected. Taken as a whole, their early Kinks-like presentation suggests a group that has assimilated all the best of what’s edgy and exciting about rock’n'roll. Like all the albums on this list, highly recommended.

The Paul & John – Inner Sunset
There’s always room in my collection for what I call “pop.” My definition differs from the widely understood one in that I focus more on guitar-based music with a classic songwriterly approach. And I can think of few better exemplars of the style than this duo featuring Paul Myers (also a fine author and clever Twitter user) and John Moremen (also a hotshot guitarist who’s worked with the Mystery Lawn stable of artists, Half Japanese and many others). If you like acts such as XTC and Marshall Crenshaw, you’ll swoon when you hear cuts like “Everything Comes Together.” Me, I get shivers. An outstanding LP start to finish.

Stay tuned for more of Musoscribe’s best new music of 2014.

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Interview: Aaron “Woody” Wood

Tuesday, December 23rd, 2014

Though it’s in many ways an informal affair, Warren Haynes Presents Christmas Jam has been growing in a deliberate fashion. Thanks both to concertgoer demand and the long line of musicians wishing to be involved in this fundraiser event, the festival – now in its 26th year – expanded to two nights a few years back, and has added extra events downtown.

The Christmas Jam By Day presents musical artists – many of whom are local and/or regional sensations – in smaller, more intimate settings. The acoustic jam, hosted by Drivin’N'Cryin‘s Kevn Kinney – has been part of the festival since the beginning. Its newer, more plugged-in counterpart takes place just down the street at Asheville Music Hall and its downstairs annex, The One Stop.

Guitarist-vocalist Aaron “Woody” Wood has been a fixture of the Jam By Day for the last several years; usually the organizers contact Wood and ask him to participate. “This year, I kinda reached out to Kevn Kinney through Facebook,” Wood says. “I asked if I could play again this year. I never heard back from him. Next thing I know, it’s in the paper!” Wood is as well-known nationally as he is in his longtime hometown of Asheville; as a member of The Blue Rags, Custard Pie, Sufi Brothers, Hollywood Red and a solo artist, Wood’s brand of music incorporates Piedmont blues, bluegrass, soul, and good old fashioned rock’n'roll.

For this year’s Jam By Day event, Wood will appear at both Asheville Music Hall and Jack of the Wood. For the latter, he says, “I’ll be playing some newer stuff that I’ve written. The crowd there…you can hear a pin drop.”

Wood’s Asheville Music Hall set is with his pick-up band of musical brothers, Trouble. The group is an ongoing collective of well-known and in-demand local/regional players who convene for the occasional gig. Trouble also features Jay Sanders on bass, keyboardist Ryan Burns, Shane Pruitt on guitar, and drummer Frank Bloom. “We go together like red beans and rice,” Wood says. Trouble builds spontaneous jams out of well-known songs. “The best way to hear songs that I really, really love,” Wood says, “is to play ‘em.” He likens each song to “a ‘face.’ Then we start playing, and that’s how we put ‘eyebrows’ on it.”

Trouble has been together in one form or another for as long as Wood has been playing the Jam By Day. “I think what we do is really in line with what happens on Saturday night, at the main Jam,” Wood says. “Musicians who love to play get together with people they really love to play with.” That informal approach encourages players to just hang out and do what comes naturally, with the added features of a huge crowd of fans in attendance, and fund raising for a good cause. For the last several editions of the festival, proceeds have benefited Habitat for Humanity. The whole event “has a real family type of feel,” says Wood.

Advance tickets for the Jam By Day at Asheville Music Hall are available online for $10. The AMH lineup includes Blue Bop (Bela Fleck Tribute), The Broadcast, Jahman Brahman, Love Canon, Lyric, Marcus King Band, Ed Williams’ RumpelSteelSkin (ft. Andrew Campanelli, George Gekas & Michael Girardot of The Revivalists) and Trouble.

The Jack of the Wood acoustic jam lineup features Ray Sisk, Aaron Lee Tasjan, Aaron “Woody” Wood, Laura Reed, Bobby Miller & The Virginia Daredevils, Red Honey, Josh Daniel – Mark Shimick Project, Leigh Glass, David Earl, Jamie Dose & Dorsey Parker, The Pond Brothers, Ian Harrod and Michelle Malone. Tickets are also $10, but advance purchase is not available.

VIP pass holders get admittance to both Jam By Day events at no additional charge.

Wood explains his perspective on the jam aesthetic: “You can get a bunch of musicians together – people who have never played together before, and who might not play together again – and play songs they all know: ‘What key would you like to do this in? A major? Okay.’” And in that sense, Wood contends that all of it – no matter what style of music each player comes from – is really folk music. “Because all the folks know that shit, y’know what I mean?”

This feature originally appeared in print in Mountain Xpress.

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Jason D. Williams: A Mixing Bowl Combined With a Sponge (Part Two)

Tuesday, October 21st, 2014

Continued from Part One

By 1993, as the first signing of the reactivated Sun Records, Jason D. Williams released Wild. Sessions for that disc took place in the storied studio at 706 Union Avenue in Memphis. “A lot of big name entertainers who’ve recorded there use the word channel. They feel like they’re channeling the greats who have recorded there before them. Not me,” he insists. “That took care of itself. But my reason for being there was that, believe it or not, it was on my bucket list.” Jason had only played there previously, he says, “as a youngster, playing one song on a Johnny Rivers album.” In the 90s, while doing session in Memphis for Dale Watson, Williams thought, “Sun is right around the corner. Why have I never done a session of my own there? I know everybody who’s ever recorded here!” So he did.

“I had my little boy there with me,” Jason beams. “To see him asleep on the floor there at two in the morning was a real joy. My wife would be in the booth, and I’d be in the studio. We’d cut something, and I’d have to step over my son to get back to the engineer’s room. It was fun.”

Eventually starting his own label, Williams followed up Wild with a string of albums, and the titles set the tone: 2004′s Don’t Get None Onya; Rockin’; Killer Instincts; Recycled; and his latest, Hillbillies and Holy Rollers. While the sessions for 2010′s Killer Instincts were initially planned as a mostly-covers project, the strength of Williams’ original numbers – including the standouts “You Look Like I Could Use A Drink” and “White Trash Wife” – tilted the song selection toward new material.

Prior to Killer Instincts, Williams seemed uncomfortable trading on his genetic connection to Jerry Lee Lewis; even today he answers questions on that subject with uncharacteristically brief replies. Clearly he prefers to be measured on the strength of his own work. Still, there’s no denying that Williams’ visual style is highly reminiscent of a young Jerry Lee: stomping the upper registers of the piano with his right foot; his long forelocks dangling in front of his sweaty face; his overall playing approach that is equal parts mania and assured control.

On 2014′s Hillbillies and Holy Rollers, Williams serves up an assortment that is weighted evenly between originals and other people’s songs, but his renditions of the latter are Jason D. Williams through and through. Joe Ely‘s “Fingernails” ends up serving as a theme song of sorts: Williams pounds the daylights out of the ivories while explaining that “I leave my fingernails long so it clicks when I play the piano.” He’s as comfortable playing flowery licks on weepers like Hank Williams‘ (no relation) “You Win Again,” and though Elvis cut the most well-known version of “Mean Woman Blues,” Williams makes the tune his own. And Jason demonstrates his command of uptempo tent-revival gospel with the album’s two final cuts, “Old Time Religion” and “I’ll Fly Away.”

Jason returned to Sun Studio for Hillbillies and Holy Rollers, and the studio’s aesthetic formed an important part of the sound captured there. Williams says that all the album’s songs were recorded in “one take. On everything except ‘You Win Again,’ where I went in and added strings afterward. If we messed up, we’d just start over. And we just had a mic in the middle of the room.”

“You know,” Williams continues, “Roy Orbison said that he became a stronger singer every time he recorded at Sun. He had to sing over the instruments, the way they used to record. And I could certainly see what he was talking about when I recorded there, too.”

Though his trademark sound is to most ears an agressively-attacked acoustic piano, most days Williams plays an amplified Kawai piano. He favors a model that he says the company “stopped making in 1980,” and he has made an effort to find as many as possible of that increasingly-rare model for himself ever since. For live gigs – Williams tours to more than 160 dates annually – he’s joined by guitar, bass and drums. He chuckles and adds that the band is occasionally augmented by “another piece on the end: violin, saxophone, trombone…anything, as long as they can add to the show!”

These days, there are still a few items remaining on Jason D. Williams’ bucket list. Jerry Lee Lewis “lives just down the street; we visit from time to time.” And though it hasn’t happened recently (they have played together informally a select few times), Williams hopes that he will once again get to share a performance stage with his biological father. Until – and doubtless after – that happens, concertgoers will get the chance to see a high energy show that builds on the music foundation of old.

Jason D. Williams will appear onstage at the Martin-Lipscomb Performing Arts Center in Highlands NC on Friday, November 28 (that’s the day after Thanksgiving). Visit his website at www.rockinjasondwilliams.com.

Note: An edited version of this feature originally appeared in print in the September 2014 issue of Stomp and Stammer Magazine.

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Jason D. Williams: A Mixing Bowl Combined With a Sponge (Part One)

Monday, October 20th, 2014

Though his in-the-grand-tradition bio sheet asserts that Jason D. Williams first played a piano at age three, when I ask him about it, he concedes that his serious interest in the keyboard commenced around his ninth year. “I started taking piano lessons from a local piano teacher. I had a lot of great influences, from [African American blues pianist] Booker T. Lowery to Memphis Slim to classical artists. A lot of jazz greats like Phineas Newborn, too, plus a lot of good, left-hand boogie woogie players. And all points in between.”

Jason grew up in a small south Arkansas town called El Dorado. And there, his schooling in music would expand into some unlikely directions. He recalls, “There was a group of kids – they were a little older than I was – and they were into some of the west coast record labels like Takoma. We’d listen to people like John Fahey, Leo Kottke, George Winston, and Doc Watson. At the time, those were as big an influence on me as anything.” He also consumed a steady diet of big bands and jazz greats; he mentions Della Reese as a favorite.

As a direct result of distilling those influences, one of the most fascinating dimensions of Williams’ own music is its variety. Jason is sometimes pigeonholed as a rockabilly pianist, but his style is too expansive to fit neatly into any such box. In his original and carefully-chosen covers, one hears blues, jazz, r&b, country, gospel. And that all-encompassing approach might remind listeners that the music of the early pioneers of rock’n'roll – Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry, even Ike Turner – didn’t fit neatly into any one of those boxes, either.

“I was a mixing bowl combined with a sponge,” Williams says, mixing a couple of metaphors in that bowl. “I could watch anybody entertain, from Al Jolson to Jerry Lee to Cab Calloway. And I would take a little bit from each of them.” He muses on the all-around-entertainer nature of vaudeville performers who inspired him: “You had to be able to tap dance, balance stuff on your head. And play upside down. And I got all that from people like Sammy Davis, Jr., and watching old episodes of The Lawrence Welk Show.”

And in fact, though Williams was raised by a pair of loving adoptive parents, he eventually learned that his biological father was none other than the man known as The Killer, Jerry Lee Lewis. Jason was conceived mere months after Jerry Lee’s “High School Confidential” (from his debut LP on Sun Records) scaled Top 40 pop, country and r&b charts. So while he had studied and absorbed the work of many performers and composers, Jason is convinced that heredity played a part: “The style was probably genetically already there.”

Showing that he has at least a touch of his biological father’s bravura, Williams asserts, “I’m a combination of Joe Namath, Vladimir Horowitz, and Jackson Pollock.” I laugh and then pause, giving him space to elaborate. He doesn’t, leaving me to ruminate on this name-checking non sequitur.

The Jason D. Williams story – or at least the performing and recording part of it – began when he left El Dorado at sixteen. He joined the touring band of rockabilly legend Sleepy LaBeef; he still occasionally performs with the guitarist. At the tail-end of the 1980s, he – or at least his hands – starred on the big screen in the feature film Great Balls of Fire, performing the songs made famous by Jerry Lee Lewis. That same year Williams signed with RCA and cut his first album, Tore Up. On that record, his original songs fit in seamlessly with rocked-up readings of chestnuts like “St. James Infirmary” and Larry Williams‘ 1958 classic “Slow Down.”

A regular solo gig at Memphis’ famed Peabody Hotel (the one with the ducks) increased Williams’ profile. A vertigo-inducing 1990 music video of Williams and band atop Knoxville, Tennessee’s iconic Sunsphere (performing “Tore Up” and “Everybody Rockin’ on a Saturday Night”) does a good job of capturing the excitement of the pianist in a live setting, and showcases his dazzlingly precise speed-riffing on the ivories.

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Album Review: NRBQ — Brass Tacks

Tuesday, July 29th, 2014

NRBQ are one of America’s great musical treasures. Though they’ve never enjoyed the sort of commercial success of, say, a Creedence Clearwater Revival or The Band, the catalog of this band formed in 1967 is filled with riches that draw from all manner of musical forms. Listeners are as likely to hear shades of cajun swamp pop as they are hints of pianist Terry Adams‘ hero Sun Ra. And though the lineup of NRBQ has changed significantly from the old days (only leader Adams remains from the original lineup), the group’s signature approach to music remains intact.

Wry lyrics are the highlight of many NRBQ tunes, and “Greetings From Delaware” on Brass Tacks, the group’s latest, continues that tradition. Like all the tunes on the disc, “Greetings” sounds as if it was recorded live in the studio. There’s a loose-limbed feel that never feels about to fall apart; it’s the kind of aesthetic that results from a band touring and playing together for a long time, road-testing the tunes and honing them to sharpness before ever setting foot in a studio.

Adams’ assured and stylistically varied piano playing is often the centerpiece of the musical arrangements, but the rest of the band (guitarist Scott Ligon, bassist Casey McDonough, and Conrad Choucron on drums) all shine. Adams’ “Sit in My Lap” feels like a distant cousin to John Lennon‘s “(Just Like”) Starting Over,” minus the retro trappings. McDonald’s “Fightin’ Back” has a pop-country vibe (the good kind), and this lineup of NRBQ gains strength from its drawing upon the songwriting talents of three members.

NRBQ’s approach has always been modest and unassuming; the band’s music doesn’t reach out and grab listeners; instead the tunes are warm, welcoming and inviting: it’s up to to the listener whether to come in or not. The song titles alone give a tidy overview of the concerns dealt with on Brass Tacks: “It’ll Be Alight,” “Love This Love We Got,” and a knowing reading of the Great American Songbook classic “Getting to Know You.” Adams’ harmonica on “I’d Like to Know” sounds and feels like an accordion, and his piano on “Places Far Away” – the disc’s most outré number – sounds as if it’s informed equally by Randy Newman and Sun Ra. “Can’t Wait to Kiss” You” is a delightful singalong in a classic pop vein, and features a brief, ear-candy guitar solo.

Brass Tacks isn’t likely to catapult the band into mega-stardom, but for fans of the band’s friendly and intimate aesthetic, it’s a joy to hear that the band is busy and as vital as ever.

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Hundred-word Reviews July 2014, Part Four

Thursday, July 24th, 2014

I’m bound and determined to reduce the contents of my in-box to manageable levels, so this week I’ll be covering 25 albums, each adhering to a 100-word limit. Don’t mistake brevity for a negative review; these are all worthwhile releases.

Today’s five are the last in this particular run of new releases; tomorrow’s five will be recent reissues and compilations of note.

Chris Braide – Fifty Dollar Planets and Twenty Cent Stars
This British rocker is based -n Los Angeles, and on his new lengthy-titled long player, he’s aided by Pete Glenister, best known as the late Kirsty MacColl‘s guitarist. That said, listeners won’t find much jangle on this disc; Braide prefers a swaggering rock style that owes more to David Bowie and INXS. This is mostly wide-screen arena-ready rock with a melancholy feel. On tracks like “Fascinating,” Braide dials it down for a smoky, intimate vibe, but most tracks on Fifty Dollar Planets straddle the line between heavy rock and yearning power balladeering (but is far better than that label suggests).

Howlin’ Rain – Live Rain
This band began their life as a near-homage to The Allman Brothers, but quickly outgrew that on subsequent offerings such as The Russian Wilds. This set – compiled from “various locations around the world in the year 2012” – captures the emotional intensity of their live show. The band rocks hard on the eleven-minute-plus “Self Made Man,” and they resurrect the ghost of Led Zeppelin on the stomping “”Can’t Satisfy Me.” For those who dig the 70s sound but want to see it live, Howlin’ Rain is the band; until they’re in town, Live Rain is the next best thing.

The Fleshtones – Wheel of Talent
This Greenpoint (Brooklyn) quartet is a sentimental favorite of mine. On Wheel of Talent, they’ve changed their approach, but just a little. In addition to the quartet (guitar, bass, keys and drums), tunes like “Available” make prominent use of cello and violin(!) There’s one other major departure: more tracks than usual feature the lead vocals of guitarist Keith Streng rather than nominal lead singer (and keyboardist) Peter Zaremba. But the wit and swagger of the quartet that bills itself as “America’s garage band” is delightfully intact on tunes like the (previously available only as a single) tribute “Remember the Ramones.”

Archie Powell & the Exports – Back in Black
This album has nothing – insofar as I can tell – to do with AC/DC. But if you can wrap your mind around the idea of a singer/songwriter – that is, someone concentrating on lyrics first – backed by a hard rocking, ramshackle band, you’ll have an idea of what this sounds like. In fact, Archie Powell and his band sounds a lot like a less-drunk prime-era Replacements on the opener, “Everything’s Fucked.” Elsewhere they take singalong melodies and rock ‘em up; up-front acoustic guitar is too seldom used in uptempo rock; this band understands how to do it right.

Jim Mize – Jim Mize
It’s fair to label Jim Mize a “late bloomer.” This 57-year-old Arkansan has been knocking around for years, but he didn’t get into a recording studio until well into his thirties. His latest – this self-titled effort on the tastemaker Big Legal Mess imprint/sub-label of Fat Possum Records – is soulful rock that should appeal to fans of Tom Petty, John Hiatt and Nick Lowe‘s more rock-oriented material. Aided on this LP by John Paul Keith and Jimbo Mathus, Mize delivers finely-honed songcraft wrapped in memorable melodies. Mize says he plans to tour when he retires; for now, there’s this.

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Album Review: Eric Clapton – Unplugged (CD+DVD)

Friday, July 18th, 2014

Here’s a slightly unusual candidate for reissue: Eric Clapton‘s 1992 Unplugged album. To my knowledge, this massively commercially successful album has never gone out of print, which begs the question: why reissue it? To be fair, this 2014 reissue does include some bonus material. But first, let’s take a look at the original album.

Filmed – as was standard procedure for the cable series MTV Unplugged – in front of a small audience and featuring more-or-less acoustic readings of the artist’s work, Clapton’s Unplugged came pretty far into the whole “unplugged” story arc. The TV series had begin its life as a Jules Shear-hosted show with all manner of musical guests. Artists would render stripped-down, often more subtle versions of their (generally) well-known material. Beginning in late 1989, MTV Unplugged began airing, and by 1991 at least a couple of major stars had not only appeared, but had subsequently released live recordings documenting their performances: Paul McCartney‘s Unplugged (The Official Bootleg) and Mariah Carey‘s single cover of the Jackson 5‘s “I’ll Be there.” So by the time of Clapton’s Unplugged date, the idea was certainly neither new nor groundbreaking.

And by this point in Clapton’s career, his style had calmed considerably from the days of Derek and the DominosLayla and Other Assorted Love Songs (not to mention Cream), so the mellow approach was no significant stylistic departure for him.

Still, Clapton – joined by longtime musical associates including percussionist Ray Cooper, keyboardist Chuck Leavell and guitarist Andy Fairweather-Low – used the format to explore his love of the more acoustic-leaning “country blues” sounds that had long been a major influence on his playing. The result was a set heavy on covers (some might call them standards), with a few contemporary originals tossed into the mix. For his trouble, Clapton’s Unplugged LP scored him more than 10 million units sold, plus six Grammy awards.

The album’s most memorable cuts are a version of “Tears in Heaven,” the song about the tragic loss of Clapton’s son Conor, and a reinvention of “Layla” that bizarrely denudes the tune of its passion (and its classic extended instrumental coda), though it remains popular in many corners.

The new set expands the original album and offers three discs total. The first is an exact duplicate of the original 1992 CD, featuring fourteen songs form the television performance. The second disc features material recorded but not aired as part of the TV program, including three numbers (“Circus” and “Worried Life Blues” plus two takes of the unaired “My Father’s Eyes”) not broadcast, and four alternate takes/breakdowns of songs that did appear. A third disc (DVD) features the entire program as broadcast, plus an hour of previously unseen footage. None of the previously-unseen/unheard material is especially revelatory; they’re all very much of a piece. The booklet that accompanies the digipak is short on details; the opportunity to feature a contemporary essay on the performance has been passed up. And the cover art again features the grainy, “screen capture”-looking photo that graced the original release.

Verdict: good for Clapton fans who somehow don’t already have the lion’s share of this material on CD and DVD (or perhaps VHS); worthy of interest for most others, but not an essential purchase.

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Album Review: Jimbo Mathus — Dark Night of the Soul

Friday, April 25th, 2014

I can make no legitimate claim to an ability to define Americana. Like the former chief justice said about another art form, I know it when I, um, hear it. And for my money, Jimbo MathusDark Night of the Soul fits that description in the best way.

For those who haven’t been paying close attention to his music, the album comes as quite a shock. There was little or nothing in his Squirrel Nut Zippers days to suggest he’d ever make this kind of music. That late-late-90s sensation scored a hit with “Hell,” a song that unwittingly (unforgivably?) presaged today’s innumerable hordes of early-jazz pretenders, though the 2014 version identikit often includes vintage three-piece suits, fedoras, arm garters, Civil War-era beards and shit-eating grins.

But Jimbo Mathus and his music are miles away from all that. On Dark Night of the Soul, Mathus crafts a world-weary collection of tales in a kind of Southern gothic mold, and takes the listener on a musical travelogue of truly American styles. The opening (title) track opens with a rickety, reverbed piano that recalls nothing so much as Big Star‘s Third. As the song unfolds into a languid rocker, shades of Randy Newman appear, shot through with Mathus’ own signature style. The heavily distorted guitar on “White Angel” signals that Mathus will be serving up some southern rock. But he does it with shade, light and subtlety: quiet parts contrast nicely with bluesy guitar licks and a slow, stomping and insistent beat.

With a title like “Rock N Roll Trash,” you’ll have a pretty good idea what to expect. Well-worn chord changes recall some odd hybrid of Leon Russell and The New York Dolls. In anyone else’s hands, “Shine Like a Diamond” would be slick enough to earn the tag “radio ready,” but Mathus’ hoary vocals apply a sense of authenticity that prevents that characterization. The scintillating B3 work conjures thoughts of The Band, and the outro’s sha-la-la vocals hint at a Van Morrison influence at work.

“Writing Spider” sounds like a Blood on the Tracks outtake with a much better vocalist. The song’s delightful and subtle electric 12-string is an unexpected bit of texture. “Tallahatchie” is one of only three co-credits on the album; Mathus composed the other nine on his own. It’s a country blues-infused midtempo ballad with some appealing tack piano and gospel-flavored Delaney and Bonnie-style backing vocals.

The first chords or two of “Burn the Ships” feel a bit like – of all things – George Harrison‘s “My Sweet Lord,” but the tune almost immediately heads in a very different direction, out-distorting Rust Never Sleeps era Neil Young and Crazy Horse. (And don’t let all my talk of the instrumentation and arrangement distract you from the lyrics; Mathus is a deeply evocative and colorful lyricists, and the tunes on Dark Night of the Soul wold likely read well as poetry/prose.)

Anyone who heard Mathus’ excellent 2012 EP Blue Light knows that he’s an accomplished and varied stylist; calling that record a grab-bag wrongly suggests a haphazard approach. His wide stylistic palette is evidenced here with “Fire in the Canebrake,” as funky and soulful a tune as you’ll find. “Hawkeye Jordan” is a story-song in the tradition of Lynyrd Skynyrd‘s “The Ballad of Curtis Loew,” but with a brief, jaunty midsection. The pedal steel work on this cut is especially tasty.

While Jimbo’s influences are near the surface on all the original tunes on Dark Night of the Soul, he imbues his compositions with original character that stakes out his own individuality. The exception to this rule is “Casey Caught the Cannonball,” which sounds like a Band pastiche, albeit a very good one. Here, Mathus even adopts the vocal mannerisms of Rick Danko. Mathus slows things way down for “Medicine,” a junkie tale worthy of Tonight’s the Night. Some vibrato’d Wurlitzer electric piano and dulcimer or banjo (that sounds more like a Japanese koto) leads off the album closer, “Butcher Bird,” ending the album on an appropriately spooky and confusing note.

On one hand, Dark Night of the Soul sounds like one of the best mid 70s rootsy rock albums you’ve never heard. On the other, it represents a distillation of all Mathus’ influences into something fresh and original. Either way, it’s one of the strongest albums of 2014 to date.

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Album Review: Various — The Del Shannon Tribute: Songwriter Vol. 1

Tuesday, March 18th, 2014

The history of rock’n’roll is littered with artists who — for one reason or another – never quite got their due. Del Shannon is on that list. Best known as the man who gave the world the 1961 hit “Runaway,” he also achieved permanent trivia question-fodder status as the first American to cover a Beatles song on record, “From Me to You.” Shannon’s version actually hit the charts before the original did so.

Shannon enjoyed several hits (albeit mostly in the lower reaches of the charts) in the period 1961-67, and then faded from view for many years, due in large part to his alcoholism. Newly sober by the 80s, he enjoyed a brief return to prominence when the now-cult-status TV show Crime Story used “Runaway” as its theme song. Though he was mooted to replace Roy Orbison in the Traveling Wilburys, that never came to pass. A lifelong sufferer of depression, Shannon took his own life in 1990.

His influence has persisted, though, and a new tribute album (with the hopeful subtitle “Volume 1”) is titled The Del Shannon Tribute: Songwriter. As the title suggests, this sixteen-track CD focuses on Shannon’s original works. A who’s who of powerpop and established-indie acts participated in this nonprofit, with proceeds going to the Del Shannon Memorial Scholarship Fund in Coopersville MI, the town in which Shannon grew up.

Kelley Ryan’s reading of “Drop Down and Get Me” has a pop-country (in the best way) feel that’s reminiscent of Jackie DeShannon or Marti Jones (the latter of whom also has a cut on this set). Her arrangement completely removes anything that would peg the obscure song as having been written decades ago.

Randy Bachman’s version of “Runaway” wisely steers clear of the original arrangement; instead, it’s a breezy, acoustic flavored tune that sounds like a modern number as well. Son Tal Bachman (who did “She’s So High” in 1999 and then all but disappeared) assists. The tune has a toes-in-the sand, cocktail-in-hand vibe.

Pixies singer/guitarist Frank Black turns in a dark, moody interpretation of “Sister Isabelle.” Like most of the artists on this collection, he makes the song his own. It’s a testament to Shannon’s songwriting skills that these songs nearly all up sounding like originals; his song construction allows each artist to sculpt the songs to their own aesthetic.

While Marshall Crenshaw is an esteemed songwriter himself, he often records thoughtfully-chosen covers. “The House Where Nobody Lives” is catchy, with subtle flavorings of Vox organ. The result sounds not wholly unlike a laid-back version of “Runaway” (it shares a similar structure and chord pattern).

Dave Smalley will be familiar to powerpop fans thanks to his work with The Choir (“It’s Cold Outside”) and The Raspberries. But the country flavor with which he imbues “Restless” might come as a surprise. It sounds more like something The Eagles (or Against the Wind era Bob Seger) might do.

The aforementioned Marti Jones turn in a two-step countrified “You Still Live Here.” Her clear-as-a-bell voice shines through on this old-fashioned weeper.

Back in the 90s, Nash Kato was one-third of Chicago scenesters Urge Overkill (that band is back together, sources say). A feedback-drenched high lonesome reading of “Silver Birch” continues in the countrified style that pervades this record.

Carla Olson and Peter Case pick things up with the ebullient “Keep Searchin’,” with all of the energy – albeit in acoustic fashion – one finds on Plimsouls records. Yes, it’ll probably remind you of “Runaway,” but it’s great anyway.

The Brittanicas are an American/Australian act (yup, technology allow such things) that have been covered in this blog before. Guitarist Joe Algeri (working as The JAC)’s latest EP Love Dumb is well worth seeking out. Here they tackle I Got You,” a melancholy number that’s well suited to their jangling approach.

I first met my pal Patrick Potts at 2012’s Americana Music Fest, while together we enjoyed the tribute to a band we both love, Big Star. So it’s no surprise that Patrick’s band The Drysdales takes on a chiming, catchy number like “I Go To Pieces,” one of the strongest tracks on this entire disc. Listen for a brief yet tasty guitar solo, and lots of George Harrison-esque rhythm guitar work.

I’m totally unfamiliar with husband-and-wife duo StayStillPills, but this Irish band’s take on the riffy rocker “Move it on Over” (a cowrite with Dennis Coffey) is another contender for the album’s best cut. Note to self: find out more about this act.

Joe Glickman & the Zippity Doo Wop Band are equally unknown to me. Their yakety-sax version of “So Long Baby” is gimmicky and retro; they sound like a cross between They Might Be Giants and Sha Na Na. Tracks like this are why the “skip” button was invented. The track is redeemed – if only slightly – by the participation of Max Crook, Musitron player on the original “Runaway.”

Lovely electric 12-string adorns Richard Snow’s cover of “Over You.” Snow played and engineered every sound heard on the track.

The Rubinoos take a retro approach to “Hats Off To Larry,” but in their capable hands, the backward-looking approach works. The tune is a joyous, fun-filled couple of minutes, featuring the par excellence vocals of Jon Rubin, and a tasty horn section. And though it might seem a bit odd, the drum throne is ably filled on this track by Nick D’Virgilio, former drummer/lead singer for America’s best prog band, Spock’s Beard.

Overlord is the third totally-unknown-to-me act on this set. They turn in a gentle, Merseybeat flavored cover of Del Shannon’s “Kelly.” While everything about the tune is well done, it’s the vocal harmonies that truly excel.

Pop auteur Don Dixon wraps up the disc with “Distant Ghost.” The subtle, midtempo number ends the album on a suitably melancholy note.

The Del Shannon Tribute: Songwriter (Volume 1) is a belated sampler of the underappreciated songwriting talents of this American artist, as interpreted by an excellent collection of sympathetic acts influenced by him. Recommended.

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