Archive for the ‘Americana’ Category

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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Album Review: Los Lobos — Sí Se Puede

Wednesday, March 12th, 2014

It was eight long years ago that I first reviewed a Los Lobos album, a then-new best-of compilation called Wolf Tracks. And I had added some of their music to my collection many years earlier, with a purchase of the La Pistola y el Corazon vinyl LP in 1988. So while I’ve not followed their career as closely as perhaps I should have, I’ve known from the start that these Angelinos were adept at chronicling the Latino/Norteamericano experience in a way few others could even attempt.

What I didn’t know until very recently is that while their breakout EP Just Another Band From East L.A was released in 1978, it wasn’t their debut: an even-earlier collection of songs was put together in 1976.

Conceived as a charity album with all sales proceeds going to United Farm Workers of America, Sí Se Puede featured the band backing various vocal collectives. And coming from a band that was still some years away from hitting the relatively big time, it’s a revelation.

As one might expect, there’s a strong worker-centric vibe to these songs, all selected by television producer Art Brambila, the man who conceived of the overall project. Brambila gathered local singers together in a studio (with session time donated by Herb Alpert) with the then four-member Los Lobos to record the ten tracks that made up Sí Se Puede (Yes We Can). A few weeks later, the project was completed, and 5000 copies were pressed on vinyl, to be sold as fundraisers. In 2014, original copies are impossibly rare: the two online outlets where one usually looks to find used vinyl (musicstack.com and discogs.com) have none, nor does ebay. Gemm.com does indeed list one, for a mere $1409.18 (plus shipping).

Thankfully, Concord Music Grop has remedied this situation, after a fashion. On March 11 (this week) the label has reissued Sí Se Puede in digital-only format. And while that might be a slight disappointment to those who cherish the physical artifact, the music itself makes getting an mp3 version worth making the exception.

Most of the tunes are in Spanish (in all or in part), but a lack of familiarity with the language won’t diminish your enjoyment. “Mana is Now” featuring Geree Gonzales and Tierra sounds not wholly unlike what Linda Ronstadt did on 1987′s Canciones de mi Padre. And the artist known here only as Ramon fronts Los Lobos on “Yo Estoy con Chavez” (“I am With [Cesar] Chavez”), a new folk tune based – fittingly enough — on the melody of Woody Guthrie‘s “This Land is Your Land.”

There’s plenty of traditional Mexican sounds to be found here; Los Lobos turn in primarily acoustic performances, though the lack of electric instruments doesn’t mean a corresponding lack in energy. Lots of accordion, fiddle and harmonica give these tunes – lovingly arranged by the band – an authentic and homespun (yet thoroughly professional) feel overall. The highlight of the entire collection is one of three tracks on Sí Se Puede to feature Carmen Moreno, the lovely, flute-laden “Sangre Antigua.”

Fans of the band will absolutely want to add this to their collection, as will anyone interested in a socio-musical document of the concerns of California farm workers in the mid 1970s. Originally done as a way to raise funds for UFW, today it’s simply a fine collection of music.

Note: You may also enjoy my review of Los Lobos’ 2010 album, Tin Can Trust.

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Hundred-word Reviews: Reissues

Tuesday, March 4th, 2014

Those CDs continue to pile up here at Musoscribe World Headquarters. And even after I cull the unsolicited or semi-solicited ones that don’t make the cut for coverage, I still end up with more music than I can possibly cover in the depth of detail I’d like (and that they deserve). So occasionally – and more often of late – I schedule a group of hundred-word capsule reviews in which I endeavor to hit the high points. All of these are worth your time. Toady’s batch are all reissues of older releases, several of which are somewhat rare.


Cat Mother and the All Night Newsboys – Albion Doo-Wah
This little-known outfit was initially championed by no less a luminary than Jimi Hendrix, who produced their debut album. This, their second, was no more successful in the marketplace, but it remains an interesting listen. From the opening track, “Riff Raff” onward, the band leans in a city-headed-country rock direction, with the results sounding like some cross between The New York Rock and Roll Ensemble and The Band. Some of the truly deep-fried tracks like “Turkish Taffy” are only partially successful, but the genre hybridization of “Boonville Massacre” still sounds delightfully fresh and appealing forty years later.


Mason Williams – The Mason Williams Ear Show
Like the above title, this is the second of two Real Gone Music reissues by a mostly (and unjustly) forgotten artist. Released a mere nine months after The Mason Williams Phonograph Record, this album very much continues in a similar musical vein (how could it not?). For many artists, such a rush-release schedule wold result in an album full of half-baked, tossed-off tunes, but it would appear that Williams was a prolific composer of quality material. Like the last record, this one is full of eclectic mainstream pop Americana (though in its formal sense rather than its 21st century one).


Surf Punks – Locals Only
Neither the best nor the worst of its kind, this album is a reasonably successful amalgam of comedy rock and surf music. The titles tell you the story: “No Fat Chicks,” “Born to Surf,” “Spoiled Brats from Malibu.” It’s fun enough, and with the principals’ connection to Captain and Tennille (drummer/composer/producer) Dennis Dragon is the brother of “Captain” Daryl Dragon) one can be all but certain that there’s a commercial appeal to these bratty tracks. And there is; it’s more revved-up garage rock (with party trappings) than anything approaching punk. A welcome dose of 80s nostalgia.


The Alabama Stare Troupers – Road Show
A curio from the anything-goes early 1970s. An all-star (sic) lineup takes to the road – presaging Bob Dylan‘s Rolling Thunder Revue – and one show is documented as a tour souvenir. Don Nix (his Living by the Days was also reissued) rounded up country bluesman Furry Lewis and vocalist Jeanie Green plus assorted musicians and a choir. The result 2LP didn’t sell like hotcakes. But Furry Lewis – who gets half of the first CD – is in fine form, and the full-band tracks – sounding very much like The Band with a choir – are soulful and enjoyable.


The Lords of the New Church – Is Nothing Sacred?
Give this CD five seconds of your time, and you’ll say “1983.” But “Dance With Me” – the most well-known track from the Gothic rock band led by former Dead Boys singer/guitarist Stiv Bators – still sounds great. Sure, it’s more than a little reminiscent of Duran Duran, The Church and Billy Idol, but this foursome – with punk veterans from The Damned, Sham 69 and The Barracudas – earned their punk/new wave cred honestly. Two other Lords studio albums – their 1982 debut (their best) and 1984′s The Method to Our Madness – have also gotten reissue.

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Album Reviews: Camper Van Beethoven — Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart and Key Lime Pie

Wednesday, February 12th, 2014

You know that marketing term “early adopter?” Those are the people who bought CD players in 1984. They bought Blu-Ray players before there were any Blu-Ray discs available. And they maybe, just maybe, bought a CD-i player and a DCC player back in the 80s.

Me, I’m what they call a “late adopter.” I didn’t buy a flat-panel TV until 2012, when my old, late 80s model CRT television bit the dust. And – even though I worked in a record store back at the dawn of the CD era, I didn’t buy a CD player of my own until 1993.

Of course, by ’93, vinyl records (then and now my preferred musical media format) were scarce, especially when it came to new releases. So when I wanted new music, my choices were limited to cassettes. And I’ve always disliked storebought cassettes; those things seemed so cheaply made. Clearly the guts of a storebought cassette were not on a quality level equal to a Maxell chrome tape of the day. So occasionally I’d ask friends to make me mixtapes from their CDs. And thanks to a coworker – this was back in my corporate cube farm days – I got turned onto some new music beyond what I had heard on (reasonably good) commercial radio.

The band whose catalog lay at the center of my cassette discoveries was Camper Van Beethoven. I knew of them through their connection to Cracker (David Lowery‘s later/other band), but I hadn’t heard any of their music elsewhere. Certainly I hadn’t heard CVB on the radio.

By the time I was getting into their music, Camper Van Beethoven were no more (at least for awhile). And while I was fascinated by their early albums – I found them, especially on 1986′s II & III to be a sort of modern rethink on (American band) Kaleidoscope, David Lindley‘s late 60s band – their final pair of albums were, for me, the most accessible.

Those records – 1988′s Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart, and Key Lime Pie from the following year – finally distilled their dizzying mix of influences into a distinctive sound, one that was more than the sum of those influences. While “One of these Days” is straightforward and commercial-sounding (it would be right at home on a Cracker album), even there the band introduce some off-kilter sonics into the mix. Often as not, where a more conventional band would drop in an electric guitar solo, Camper would instead feature a gypsy-flavored violin solo from Jonathan Segel (no Neil Diamond jokes, please; it’s been done). The band could stomp it out on an instrumental number like “Waka,” with plenty of distorted guitar, but there was still an odd sensibility, a sort of sideways take on world music, that made Camper songs sound like nobody else’s.

(In 2011, Camper Van Beethoven brought Key Lime Pie to the concert stage as a compete work; here’s a feature/interview with David Lowery concerning that.)

So now, some quarter-century after their original release, these album are getting the expanded-reissue treatment from Omnivore, one of the premier archival/reissue labels in operation today. Nicely housed in digipak sleeves with lovely booklets chock full of quality essays and photos, these reissues are exemplars of how a project such as this ought to be done. And not unlike Ryko’s reissue of Elvis Costello‘s albums many years ago (there have been countless other Costello reissue campaigns), the Omnivore sets effectively double the amount of music found on the originals. And aside from the occasional sonic differences you’ll find between, say, a bonus demo version or live take compared to the original studio cuts, the expanded albums are every bit as consistent as before.

One of the bonus cuts on Key Lime Pie even includes a sly nod to John Lennon in the form of a quote from “Oh Yoko” on “(I Don’t Wanna Go) to the Lincoln Shrine,” and there’s an even slyer nod to Ringo Starr on a Sweetheart bonus track: the band welds George Harrison‘s signature riff from Ringo’s “Photograph” onto Paul Simon‘s “Kodachrome.” (Get it?)

In fact, unless you’re a resolute vinyl fetishist, there’s little reason to own the original versions; the Omnivore sets are well worth trading up to. But wait: both of these albums are in fact available on vinyl as well as CD. Sweetheart features the original album’s contents on 180-gram vinyl, while Pie is a 2LP set containing the original album plus a single bonus track that – shades of Moby Grape – plays at the wrong speed and – like Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman‘s Checkpoint Charlie album – plays from the inner groove outward. Plus, while an original vinyl of Sweetheart is relatively easy to find, vinyl Key Lime Pie is somewhat rare and pricey. So really, there’s no excuse. If you dig the hooky, adventurous, difficult-to-classify sound of Camper Van Beethoven, the Omnivore reissues of Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart and Key Lime Pie are essential purchases.

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New Albums from Asheville Locals Pierce Edens, Drunken Prayer

Thursday, December 5th, 2013

Today is my birthday. My 50th, in fact. So I’m kinda taking the day off. But still have something to share: recently I penned a news item/feature for Asheville’s altweekly Mountain Xpress, covering a new CD and DVD release by local artist Pierce Edens. So with the print edition’s two-week embargo now ended, here’s a slightly edited version of that story, plus an additional sidebar I wrote. — bk.


Perhaps it’s paradoxical to suggest that the best way to capture a rough and tumble, unvarnished musical performance is through use of high definition cameras, but that was exactly the approach taken on Pierce Edens and the Dirty Work‘s upcoming LIVE. “We got to make something like the live show that you can also take home when the lights go down,” says Edens. Two Asheville events in November – an advance screening and release party –  celebrated the release of the new DVD and its companion audio CD. Recorded over two nights in front of an appreciative audience at The Lexington Avenue Brewery in Downtown Asheville, LIVE presents the rootsy Edens and his band at their best.

That best really is tough to pin down: Allmusic.com classifies Edens alternately as folk-rock and psychedelic/ garage. But his music can just easily – and accurately – be tagged with the singer/songwriter label; he’s a gritty troubadour who takes what he needs from each style, blending and bending it to suit the needs of his songs.

Raised on a steady diet of mountain music, Edens discovered punk in his teens; his original story-songs are a compelling synthesis of both styles. The mysterious and ominous strains of “Jailhouse” that kick off the show display all of Edens’ best qualities: raspy, hoary vocals coupled with muscular backing that has all the power of rock’n'roll while hewing mostly to the Americana side of the tracks. Stinging slide guitar leavens the acoustic underpinning of many of the tunes.

The careening, high-speed romp of “Pretty” is reminiscent of Elvis Presley‘s “Mystery Train” by way of Johnny Cash, imbued with the smoky barroom aesthetic of Tom Waits. Elsewhere, the searing bluesy ballad of “Good Man” shows the stylistic range of the group, with Matt Smith‘s extended lead guitar break featuring sheets of feedback that recall Neil Young at his most metallic.

A longtime fixture of the music scene, Edens has previously released two discs under his own name: 2004′s Four Songs EP and a full-length self-titled album in 2012. The latter was fan-financed via a Kickstarter program which raised 130% of the set goal within 45 days.

Concurrent with his solo work, Edens launched The Dirty Work, featuring Smith on electric guitar and pedal steel, Jesse James Hongisto on bass fiddle, drummer Dane Rand, and Jim Aaron on harmonica. The group has released a pair of studio albums, 2006′s Party Dress and Long Days Above Ground in 2009. For the performances that made up the LIVE CD and DVD, they were joined by saxophonist Jacob Rodriguez and Justin Ray on trumpet.

The LIVE set draws from all four previous releases, recasting some of Edens’ simpler arrangements in a full band style. The close-in, intimate ambience of The LAB’s stone-walled backroom music space, coupled with deft (and hi-def) multiple camera production gives the concert DVD the perfect balance of high-end and down-and-dirty. Pierce Edens says that recording allowed for a display of “the difference between a studio album and live music; this was a chance to get back into the stomping, sweaty grind that our live show can be…including that element of chaos that makes live music so special.” The LIVE CD contains thirteen tracks from the Winter 2012 shows; the DVD adds special features and solo performances of Edens originals “Queen of Hearts” and “Train Tracks.”

Produced by local media production company Sound Lab Studios, the LIVE DVD will be released nationally on December 10. But a pair of events celebrating the release gave fans in WNC two chances to preview what’s in store. On Thursday November 21, the DVD got an advance screening at the Fine Arts Theater downtown. And the next night (Friday the 22nd) Pierce Edens and the Dirty Work performed a release party at The Isis Music Hall in West Asheville.


Drunken Prayer — House of Morgan
Like many esteemed musicians before him – Declan MacManus springs immediately to mind – Morgan Geer (formerly of Asheville’s fondly-remembered The Unholy Trio) plys his musical trade using a nom de musc; in his case, it’s Drunken Prayer. The Portland/Asheville artist – who argues convincingly that he’s “not trying to be neo or alt or Americana but let out a howl informed by living life and soaking up American music from slave tunes to psychedelia to street parades” – released his third album, House of Morgan this month.

This time employing a more stripped-down approach than was used on 2012′s Into the Missionfield, Geer cut House of Morgan at home on a vintage cassette four-track (with some assist from computer software). But despite the bare-bones approach – Geer plays and sings all the sounds on the record – the sonic thread that runs through his earlier efforts remains unbroken. Listeners will hear strains of soul, funk, garage, blues, and roadhouse country. But they’re all deftly woven together by Geer’s unique sensibility. House of Morgan is out November 19 on Portland-based Fluff and Gravy Records.

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Album Review: Woody Guthrie — American Radical Patriot

Tuesday, October 22nd, 2013

Most Americans know the name Woody Guthrie. What they know of him beyond that – and/or their opinion on what he means to popular culture and music – varies widely. He’s an often misunderstood character, and as so often happens, human tendency toward a sort of reductionist thought tends to try and simplify him, to distill his essence down to a short wiki entry.

His body of work is an inconvenient presence to that sort of approach. The man wrote at least 3001 songs (that’s how many that have been officially catalogued by his official foundation) and there were certainly more. He recorded extensively, as well. And a new compilation brings together a thematically linked set of recordings dating mostly from the 1940s and 50s. Woody Guthrie: American Radical Patriot collects for the first time in one place all of the Library of Congress recordings Guthrie did with historian Alan Lomax, his Bonneville Power Administration songs; demos he did in hopes of supporting public health initiatives to combat venereal disease; and songs to support the WWII war effort. Six CD document that material, and a detailed annotation guides the listener along.

The sessions with Lomax are a rich combination of stories, songs and story-songs. In a small studio, the two men sit (with occasional sips of liquor), and Lomax – employing the polite fiction that the two had only just met – asks Guthrie to reminisce about his life as a youth in dust bowl Oklahoma, his move to California, and myriad other topics. For his part, Guthrie recounts jokes, tells heart-rending stories of death, and regales Lomax with vivid slice-of-life tales.

And quite often – sometimes without prompting, sometimes with encouragement from Lomax — Gurthrie sings and plays songs. His own tunes occasionally, but as often as not, songs he learned from others. Traditional songs adapted to his style, these tunes include “Greenback Dollar” and “The Midnight Special” (the latter written and popularized by Guthrie’s friend and another of Lomax’s session subjects, Huddie Ledbetter aka Lead Belly).

Guthrie sings of love, of his god (“Jesus Christ,”) of American folk heroes and antiheroes (“Billy the Kid.” “Pretty Boy Floyd”), and of the struggles between the haves and have nots (“The Jolly Banker”).

The last of these leads toward a discussion of a question given deep coverage in the pages of American Radical Patriot‘s stunning book: was Woody Guthrie a Communist? Evidence is presented, and in the end the reader/listener is encouraged to make his/her own decision, but the liner essay author (Bill Nowlin, though one has to look hard to find the modest author’s name or credit) clearly believes – and argues convincingly – that Guthrie was in fact a “commonist” rather than a member of any sort of organized school of thought. Guthrie’s own half-jesting words on the subject: “I ain’t a communist necessarily, but I have been in the red all my life.” Nowlin suggests Guthrie was a sort of quasi-Christian socialist, and the songs in general support that view. More than anything else, he was a champion of the common man, of the downtrodden, the voiceless.

Though amazingly plain-spoken and a voice who articulated the persona of the American common man, Guthrie was indeed complicated. His views often changed. Early on he used the N-word, until taken to task by a radio listener. (He immediately stopped using the offensive term.) His views on the glories of American frontier expansionism led him to paint a negative portrait of Native Americans in one of the songs he cut for the BPA (“Roll On Columbia,”) though Nowlin suggests — again, convincingly so — that had Guthrie been called out on this, he likely would have rethought and rewritten the lytic.

Too, he was decidedly anti-war until the sinking of the USS Reuben James by the Germans in 1941. Guthrie went on to serve in the quasi-governmental Merchant Marines, and later the US Army. He recorded many anti-fascist songs including “Reuben James” and “Whoopy Ti-yi, Get Along, Mr. Hitler.” American Radical Patriot collects those tunes as well. While at first glance Guthrie’s populist sentiments might seem at odds with the idea of recording in the employ of the Federal government, closer inspection shows that it’s not at all inconsistent. Guthrie saw the federal government as a counterweight to some of the more anti-populist tendencies of state governance; in many ways he’s the polar opposite of the misguided, mean-spirited and short-sighted 21st century so-called “tea party” mentality.

The new set also includes innumerable goodies, but here’s a rundown of the most significant among these. First, there’s a DVD including a 99-minute documentary film Roll On Columbia; eleven of Guthrie’s songs are included. The liner notes – in a chapter entitled “The Bonneville Power Administration Recordings” — tell the story of one man’s heroic stewardship of films (including Guthrie’s music) that were ordered destroyed during the dark days of McCarthyism.

Though it’s of practical use to very few people, the set also includes a 10” 78rpm disc. The record includes an alternate recording of “The Biggest Thing that Man Has Ever Done” (originally cut for the BPA) and a flip-side recording of Bob Dylan covering Guthrie’s “VD Blues.”

The physical package itself is beyond amazing. Housed in a hardcover package designed to look and feel like an old-time “record album,” American Radical Patriot may well be the – from a visual/tactile aesthetic point of view – one of the most impressive box sets ever put together. The 60pp book (not a booklet!) bound inside is essential reading, though readers are advised against attempting to do so while listening ot the CDs. And if all that three-dimensional stuff isn’t enough, an e-book (also available on Disc One as a PDF, and in hard copy form for a nominal additional charge of about $13.50) presents a much longer and more in-depth version of the book included in the physical set.

As a cultural icon, Woody Guthrie, his oral histories and his music are all exemplars of the best qualities of the American experience. That a package such as American Radical Patriot is created to honor him is one of those why-didn’t-they-think-of-this-before things. But here it is. Simply essential.

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