2010 Odds and Ends (Capsule Reviews)

Even if one is (for example) a reviewer of measured fame and notoriety, one still ends up with a ton of unsolicited and semi-solicited audio material arriving via post. (The latter is sort of, “May I send you my CD?” “Yes, but I can’t promise a review.”) Because I stumble across so much excellent music, for the most part I limit my reviews to those things that interest me the most. A lot of dross comes my way, and plenty of CDs don’t get a full hearing. It’s the way of the world: Especially for an unknown-to-me artist, the first track must get my (positive) attention. If I like it, I’ll let the CD play on. If I’m less than knocked out, I hit “Skip” and try the first few seconds of a few others. The ones that don’t pass muster go in the Goodwill bin.

Fair enough; you likely wouldn’t want to hear what I had to say about those artists anyway: their names would be mostly unfamiliar to you, and I wouldn’t be recommending them. But sometimes some good music (and occasionally some very good music) just doesn’t make it into my review queue.

Plus, the New Year is fast approaching, so I want to get this huge stack of CDs on my desk down to a workable size. With that in mind, herewith are some capsule commentaries on music that has crossed my desk. All are recommended to some degree if my points resonate with you.

Various ArtistsThen: 1956 (Fantastic Voyage).
Another in FV’s ongoing series of year-in-review CDs, this one takes a look at the British chart-toppers from 1956. Note that in those days the UK charts were ruled with a (velvet-gloved) iron fist by Auntie Beeb, and ’56 was a long time before the days of pirate radio. So what you get on Then: 1956 consists equally of “adult pop” a la Dean Martin, Perry Como and Pat Boone and more sounds of import (see what I did there?) via Elvis, Bill Haley and Gene Vincent. And of course Lonnie Donegan‘s “Rock Island Line” is here. Thank goodness; without Lonnie we might not have had our lovable lads from Liverpool.

CloverseedsThe Opening (The Laser’s Edge).
Generally releases on TLE are progressive rock affairs, and that’s how this one is marketed as well. To my ears it’s closer to hard rock. Not that this is a bad thing, though. The sleeve art has a strong Lasse Hoile vibe, which again might make one think of prog, but Cloverseeds are bit more chunka-chunka than progsters might dig.

Information SuperhighwayThis is Not the Ending (self-released).
This quartet features Rob Clearfield, the nimble and versatile keyboardist from District 97. And like D97 this group features a female vocalist. But Information Superhighway doesn’t engage in the harder-edge, tricky arrangements of D97, and this album is a more subdued affair. Interesting choices of instrumentation make it well worth a listen.

Jesse BrewsterWrecking Ball at the Concert Hall (Crooked Prairie).
The record kicks off with the dusty, freewheeling “All Those Things I Said,’ and stakes out territory that will be welcomed warmly by fans of Jackson Browne, Tom Petty and some of those post-Eagles solo albums from Don Henley et. al. From there, things take a decidedly Americana/country turn, but this is miles above what passes for modern country.

Dave StephensTime Will Tell (self-released).
This is a singer/songwriter album of wide scope. Waltzing ballads, sweeping rocking epics, lovely string arrangements and crunching guitars all sit nicely aside each other. Dave Stephens is responsible for most of the instrumentation and vocals, but this well-produced album sounds not a bit like a homemade demo project.

MaefliesDinkytown Highway (self-released).
This is more mainstream country with a gently rocking edge, which is to say it’s mainstream country. Expert playing by a real band (as opposed to faceless sessioners) and a capable female lead vocalist (who’s undeniably a bit of eye candy) raises this above similar efforts. Fans of Fleetwood Mac, Shania Twain or even later-period Bob Seger will find plenty to like here.

Minnemann-ChicoineNormalizer 2 (self-released).
Crazed stickman Marco Minnemann recorded an hour-long drum solo and made the recording available to other musicians, allowing them to do as they would. Trey Gunn (formerly of King Crimson) applied his sonic icing in the form of Warr guitars and whatnot and created Modulator. (My interview with Trey Gunn will be out soon.) Other artists took their own cracks at the material with different results. Kerry Chicoine (of the prog outfit Mars Hollow, whose excellent album will be reviewed in depth soon) took a crack at it, and the results are challenging in the best sense of that word. At times it’s a bit like bossa-nova, then it’s stand-on-your-head musical acrobatics and guitars from another dimension. Engaging, fascinating and on the edge, it doesn’t always work. But that’s part of its appeal, and it’s successful far more often than not. (At press time prolific DIY artist R. Stevie Moore expressed interest in taking a whack at the Minnemann tapes as well. Hmm.)

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I have a material connection because I received a sample or review copy, or an item of nominal value that I can keep for consideration in preparing to write this content. I was/am expected to return this item after my review.