Friday, April 25, 2014

Loudon Wainwright III: Whatever Floats Your Boat

(As published in the Illinois Entertainer, May 1998)

On the cover of his new album Little Ship (Virgin/Charisma), Loudon Wainwright III sits in an inflatable lifeboat, paddling with a ukulele to get out of the way of a fast-approaching ocean liner that bears a striking resemblance to a certain big ship that's been all the rage at the movie theaters and record shops lately.  
In a sense, the image captures Wainwright's commercial dilemma perfectly: For twenty-eight years now, he has watched his carefully crafted singer-songwriterly albums get overrun by "bigger" ones.  Wainwright says he had no conscious premonition of how huge Titanic was going to be when he began designing Little Ship's cover with his art director Hugh Brown (who, coincidentally, won a "Best Recording Package" Grammy for his work on Titanic: Music As Heard On The Fateful Voyage). "I must've known it subconsciously," he jokes dryly.  "I'm sure I'm going to sell a lot of CDs with that alone."
At fifty-one, the legendarily sardonic Wainwright has grown accustomed to referring to his album sales in sarcastic tones.  Despite the fact that he's released sixteen albums, almost all of them on major labels, and even had a Top 40 hit (the roadkill classic "Dead Skunk," which peaked at number sixteen on Billboard's chart in 1973), he's never had a multi-platinum album and doesn't expect a box set anytime soon.
"There's been talk of one," he admits, "but it hasn't happened.  No one's gotten in gear on it, least of all myself."  Ferreting through his several hundred songs in search of highlights, he says, "sounds like a daunting task. I 'd leave that up to somebody else.  Once I make these things, I really don't like to listen to them that much."
He does, however, like to perform them.  That's why, despite the high quality of his studio recordings, it's his live albums--1980's A Live One (Rounder), '93's Career Moves (Virgin), side two of '75's Unrequited (Columbia)--that capture his James-Taylor-on-caffeine act at its most enthusiastic.  His current tour also captures him at his most vulnerable: This time he's facing his audience armed with nothing but his guitar, banjo, and ukulele.  As one might expect, the set list tends toward flexibility.
"That can vary from night to night," he says.  "I'm certainly doing quite a few songs from Little Ship, but the other night I sang one from Grown Man ['95] and probably three from History ['92].  And the night before that I sang "Unrequited to the Nth Degree" from an album I did in 1975 [Unrequited].  I'm also playing a lot of brand new songs that aren't on any album."
He even takes requests--sometimes.  "I will if I'm in the mood, but moods are fleeting.  If somebody yells something and I think, 'That'll be fun to play,' I'll play it.  On the other hand, if somebody yells something and my little voice says, 'I don't want to do that,' then I usually listen to my little voice."  And what do people shout for the most? "People like 'The Acid Song,'" he says.  "I get a lot of requests for that."
"The Acid Song," like many of Wainwright's songs, is a comedy number.  However, unlike the tunes of singing humorists (Tom Lehrer, Mark Russell) and comedians-turned-hitmakers (Steve "King Tut" Martin, Julie "Homecoming Queen's Got a Gun" Brown), Wainwright's funny songs are as musically sharp as they are funny.
No song exemplifies Wainwright's funny side better than Grown Man's "I.W.I.W.A.L."-- better known as "I Wish I Was a Lesbian."  Chosen by Spin as the funniest song of 1996, it featured a frenetic Wainwright spouting such quatrains as "I wish I was a lesbian / I'd like to be a dyke / I could hang with k.d. lang / Mel Gibson take a hike" and "I wish I was a lesbian / That's why this song is sung / It shouldn't matter how someone is hung."
"That song probably got more play than any other song on Grown Man," he laughs.  "My object when I wrote it was to make people laugh, which I try to do from time to time.  We tried to make it funny on the record, and some people thought it was.  Other people didn't, I guess, but there's a radio station in Baltimore that played it everyday."
Little Ship also has its share of yoks.  On "Breakfast in Bed," Wainwright serves up one food-sex double entendre after another, and in "I Can't Stand Myself," he salivates over his next Miss Wrong: "There must be some kind of waitress / I could lure under my mattress ... How's about a rich heiress / Or a nice massage therapist?"
The comic numbers, though, tell only half the story.  The other half is told by the tender, ironic, sad, and funny family and broken-family songs that Wainwright has been perfecting ever since his classic odes to childbirth ("Dilated to Meet You," 1973) and breastfeeding ("Rufus Is a Tit Man," 1975).  On Little Ship, the songs "Four Mirrors," "What Are Families For?," and "Bein' a Dad" join the family-song canon.
According to Wainwright, there's no big secret to getting the emotional extremes of his music to balance.  "What I do is write a batch of songs--serious ones, comedy ones, love songs, children's songs, family songs--and I just mix and match and try to create a theme or a mood out of the thirteen or fifteen that I choose.  We cut those, and then we sequence the record so that there's a kind of an audio arc in terms of listening.  It isn't like 'Oh, this album needs a serious song--I'd better come up with something.'  We just take what we cut and shape it."
As one of a handful of singer-songwriters to have sustained a career for nearly thirty years, Wainwright is clearly doing something right.  And in another fourteen years, he can add senior-citizenship to his great storehouse of topics.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Illinois Entertainer Reviews 2013: A

Leanin’ on Slick 

The current musical element of this veteran West Coast rapper (pronounced “A.C. Alone”) is a hard-swinging, pre-disco funk so infectiously lively that even listeners who don’t ordinarily cotton to hip-hop will love it.  Ditto for anyone predisposed toward hip-hop requiring no explicit-lyrics warning.  These days Aceyalone averages only one vulgarity per song (each of which he blunts with auto-tweak), freeing up his syllables for wisdom such as “Greener grass don’t mean no stress” (“What You Gone Do with That”), “The workin’ man makes the world go ’round” (“Workin’ Man’s Blues”), “Bad times don’t last forever” (“Things Get Better”), and--echoing James Brown--“I can get it myself.”  By the time he hits the road, Jack, you can’t help hoping he’ll come back some more.


Ever since rock has been old enough for its practitioners to have an album’s worth of misspent-youth favorites, there have been albums like this one--lovingly enthusiastic attempts to prove that the pupil has surpassed the teacher by covering the latter’s greatest hits and actually improving on them.  Sometimes such alchemy happens.  Usually, however, as is the case with this eight-cut example, the “classic” versions remain definitive.  Not that Adrenaline Mob’s headlong dive into Badlands’ “High Wire,” Van Halen’s “Romeo Delight,” The Doors’ “Break On Through (To The Other Side),” Dio-era-Black Sabbath’s “The Mob Rules,” and Heart’s “Barracuda” don’t kick butt or bang heads.  They do.  But the originals are still what you’ll want if and when you ever find yourself stranded on a desert island.

My Shame Is True
(Heart & Skull/Epitaph)

This album’s title plays off a phrase made famous by Elvis Costello thirty-six years ago, and, appropriately enough, the jittery hookiness and verbal wit of the opening cut (“She Lied to the FBI”) faithfully echoes that halcyon era.  As of this writing, however, it has not, despite being far and away this album’s best song, been released as a single.  Instead, that honor has gone to “I Wanna Be a Warhol” (as in a Warhol painting) while videos have been made for “The Torture Doctor,” “I, Pessimist,” “I’m Only Here to Disappoint,” and “The Temptation of St. Anthony”--monochromatic, mid-tempo, metal-chord crunchers all, just like the remaining tracks only less so.  And don’t be surprised if “I wanna be a warthog” becomes the misheard lyric of the year.    

A Is for Alpine

“A” is also for “Australia” (where Alpine comes from), “atmospheric” (what the disembodied space-chick vocals of Phoebe Baker and Louisa James sound like as they float Bananarama-like atop the tangerine dreams of their four instrument-playing bandmates), “Autobahn” (the famous German highway that christened the birth of this whole genre when Kraftwerk named a song after it nearly 40 years ago), “All lovers go” (a non-sequitur that occurs in both “Lovers 1” and Lovers 2”), and “All For One” (the refrain of which reinforces the centrality of non-sequiturs to Alpine’s aesthetic by ending “We are the love, / we are the love, / we are the love, / ’cause this is our time”).  “A” is also for “amazing,” which somehow--the foregoing criticisms notwithstanding--the catchiness of this music almost always is.

La musique numérique
(Park the Van)

It’s hard to say whether this delightful synthpop album (well, that’s one of the things it is) picks up where 2011’s Celestial Electric left off or leaves off where Celestial Electric picked up.  There is, after all, a chronology-discouraging, time-traveler ambience to Lee’s electronic exploration of the music of the spheres in general and his attraction to its most AM-friendly hooks in particular.  That’s “AM,” by the way, as in “radio”--programmed back to back, “Two Times” and the cover of “Steppin’ Out” practically beg Alan Parsons to roll over and tell Joe Jackson the news.  But Lee’s soundscapes are just as friendly to AM the singer, whose easygoing vocals redefine “airy” with a grace that’s every bit as non-daft as it is non-punk.

Sudden Elevation 
(One Little Indian)

Like her fellow Icelanders Björk and Sigur Rós, Ólöf Arnalds comes off exotic.  (Some would say weird.)  Her swoop-prone, Yoko-Ono-meets-Madeleine-Peyroux voice alone suggests far-flung foreign vistas.  Yet Arnalds seems at least as intent as her famous countrymen on crossing over.  Not only does Sudden Elevation find her singing completely in English (which, no surprise, she accentuates idiosyncratically) for the first time in her six-year career, but it also finds her doing so with instrumentation and melodies that at their most conventional (“Perfect”) will appeal to fans of Fairport Convention and that at their most incredible (“Bright and Still”) will appeal to fans of the Incredible String Band.  So what if she’s stuck in the ’60s?  At least she’ll never consider using Auto-tune.

The Ballad of Boogie Christ
(Lonely Astronaut)

Joseph Arthur’s latest album simultaneously focuses and expands the musical and verbal details of Bruce Springsteen’s most panoramically exuberant rock beyond the blue-collar horizon and into realms where people wrestle against flesh, blood, and spiritual wickedness in low places.  You might even call it a concept album, albeit one in which, to quote Arthur, “the listener [gets to] fill in some of the blanks.”  Those blanks include, but are by no means limited to, what redemption and sanctity might look and feel like to inhabitants of a culture desensitized to its need for either, a culture that just happens to resemble the very “zoo” Arthur says he misses in “Miss the Zoo.”  Why does he miss it?  Because although he doesn’t live there anymore, it still lives in him.

Illinois Entertainer Reviews 2013: B

Nothing Can Hurt Me

If 2009’s 98-track Keep An Eye on the Sky was too much of a good (or, in Big Star’s case, great) thing, this 21-track soundtrack to a documentary that may or may not do for Big Star and psychedelic power-pop/indie-rock history what Searching for Sugarman has done for Sixto Rodriguez might be too little.  Regardless, these alternate mixes--nine from #1 Record (1972), four from Radio City (1974), three-and-a-half from Third/Sister Lovers (1975), two from solo Chris Bell (mid-’70s), one from solo Alex Chilton (1970)--and a smattering of studio chatter reconfirm the obvious: To hear these Memphis September boys is to love them.  And to miss them more than ever now that both Bell and Chilton are gone.

Heavy Flowers

To be fair, the recording career of Blaudzun, a.k.a. the singer-songwriter Johannes Sigmond, antedates that of Mumford & Sons by at least a year.  So, if anything, they sound like him and not vice versa.  Still, to the several-million fans of over-earnest folk-rock who discovered Mumford & Sons first, Blaudzun will inevitably sound like the one with something to prove.  He even sings about such Mumford-worthy topics as crashing waves that “wash away our sins” (“Sunday Punch”), a girl who “reads books on Jesus” (“Elephants”), and having a Pentecostal “flame on [his] head” (“Flame on My Head”).  The main difference is that he’s content not to overdo the intensity.  Therefore his over-earnestness feels less over-earnest--i.e., less, rather than more, annoying with each repeated listening.

Classified: Remixed and Expanded

This refurbished solo-piano jewel from the Rounder vaults is a throwback both to the near end of James Booker’s tortured life and to the near origins of jazz.  That those near origins were also tortured, taking shape as they did in French Quarter bordellos, is one reason that jazz was from the start heartbreakingly joyful: It had so much misery to overcome.  Booker did too.  The one-eyed, homosexual son and grandson of Baptist preachers, he immersed himself in drink and other self-destructive self-numbing.  That he recorded Classified in four hours just one year before he succumbed is surely some kind of miracle.  Jazz, light classics, gospel, blues--his dazzlingly swift, buoyantly precise touch kept the good times rolling.  Heartbreak only reared its head when he sang.

Fits of Reason
(Supply & Demand)

Encounter this blend of gypsy-jazz, belly-dance music, and existential concerns in a smoky, late-night club, and you might convince yourself that it’s more than the sum of its parts.  Inspired (according to Brown Bird’s PR) by “Omar Khayyam, Christopher Hitchens, and Plato, among others,” David Lamb and MorganEve Swain throw a lot at the wall and hope it sticks.  Some of it does.  But, to shift metaphors, they may have bitten off more than they can chew.  Christopher Hitchens, for instance, was far more complex than the three-minute, fifty-one-second song named after him.  Of course, by writing a Christopher Hitchens song at all, Lamb and Swain may have also bitten off more than their fans can chew.  And the under-production certainly doesn’t help.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Illinois Entertainer Reviews 2013: C

The Anchor & the Sail
(Little London)

It’s no surprise that this small-town North Carolina lass has signed a publishing deal with Michael W. Smith’s publishing company.  These 10 songs evince craftswomanship of a high order.  And it’s not just the lyrics and the melodies--even the lovingly nuanced instrumentation and arrangements suggest blueprints that singers with voices richer and more distinctive than Campbell’s would be stupid not to follow before embellishing them to the top of the pop, the country, the adult-contemporary, or, in the case of “My Patchwork Heart,” the Contemporary Christian Music charts.  Campbell’s voice, apart from sounding a little too thin, is not unpleasant.  It is, however, generic, something that even the most all purpose of her compositions (Sheryl Crow would’ve been better off covering Campbell’s “Mississippi” than Dylan’s) is not.

Ghost Dragon Attacks Castle 
(Constant Ivy)

Here’s another band that sounds like Mumford & Sons but that has been around longer (a lot longer actually).  So, again, the similarities (rousing vocals, acoustic strumming, jig-dancing rhythms) are coincidental.  These Virginians were not, however, around before the Pogues, and somewhere between Mumford and MacGowan is where their sound falls (and occasionally rises)--“Jiggery Poguery” you might call it.  What sets it apart is lyrics that are neither religious nor alcoholic (partial exceptions: “Bloody Good Bar Fight Song” and “Sad and Alone” respectively).  But what good is Irish-rooted rock-folk without religion or alcohol (or, even better, both)?  And in light of the scarcity of Nazis and flesh-eating zombies these days, how is pledging to fight them (“The Fox and the Hare”) proof of one’s love exactly?

Illinois Entertainer Reviews 2013: D-F

Girl Who Got Away

Now forty-one, married, and the mother of a soon-to-be-two-year-old son, Dido is just the singer to harvest afresh that mature, feminine-feminist (in that order) middle ground once tilled by the likes of Helen Reddy and Grand Ole Opry singers with big hair.  But, unlike her foremothers, Dido’s pop sense looks forward: None of these eleven songs (seventeen in “deluxe”-ville) recapitulates her or others’ past glories.  And, unlike Madonna, Dido flirts with electronica rather than hiring it to chain her to a hotel bed and letting it have its way.  A similarly attractive restraint emerges from the way she uses her voice and words to imply depth rather than to flout shallowness.  About Rizzle Kicks’ discordant cameo rap, alas, the same cannot be said.

Now, Then & Forever

The first--maybe even the second and third--time you hear this album, you’ll find yourself thinking it’s just like old times.  Horns adorn the classic EWF vocal trio and suave funk-disco hooks, the lyrics agitate in favor of ecumenical positive mindedness, and the otherwise MIA Maurice White gives his blessings via the liner notes.  But by the fourth or fifth listen, the overreach and underreach all too common to once-great bands past their sell-by date becomes undeniable, perhaps even to Philip Bailey, Verdine White, and Ralph Johnson themselves.  How else to explain the proliferation of “deluxe” editions, four of five of which include greatest-hit bait?  Each of the non-deluxe version’s 10 tracks honors the EWF legacy.  But none of them add anything to it.

Here’s to the Good Times--This Is How We Roll 
(Republic Nashville)

Stuff these reified rednecks like: girls in bikini tops, girls in torn jeans, girls in Daisy Dukes, girls who get their shine on, girls who get their feel-good on, girls with Cadillacs, girls without tan lines, new Chevys, Pontiac convertibles, pimped-out trucks, drag racin’, beer, tequila, pineapple-coconut rum, brand-name whiskey, moonshine, the Marshall Tucker Band, Saturday nights, Friday nights, hammerin’ nails, stackin’ bales, country on the boombox, Hank Jr., Skynyrd, Jesus, saying “dayum” instead of “damn”--oh, and Auto-Tune, at least (or is that “especially”?) on the bonus tracks that expand this reissue of the album originally known as Here’s to the Good Times to seventeen cuts and the list price to $19.99.  There are videos too.  See what happens when you encourage people?

Morning Star
(Color Pool)

One difference between this jazz Christmas album and other jazz Christmas albums is that it’s live.  (A smattering of applause provides between-song segues.)  Another is that it’s a carols-only affair.  (No “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” or “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” here.)  Yet another is that for the bassist Friesen (who has recorded with Mal Waldron, Joe Henderson, Duke Jordan, and Jeff Johnson to name just three) and the pianist, drummer, and two saxes he virtuosically undergirds and unites, there’s no difference between jazz and Christmas.  The quintet clearly states the instantly recognizable melodies, loses itself in exploratory improvisation, and returns, all with confident ease and elegant virtuosity.  One has to order Morning Star directly from Friesen via his website, but the rewards repay the effort.

Illinois Entertainer Reviews 2013: G-H

Rhythm & Blues

Give Buddy Guy this much: At 77, he co-writes, covers, sings, and plays with a lot more fire and heart than Eric Clapton.  Then, when you’re done giving him that, give him this: He obviously either doesn’t know or doesn’t care that some, maybe even many, blues purists consider him more a lucky Last Man Standing--what with every other vintage bluesman having long checked out and all--than the Real Deal.  He has no qualms, for instance, about playing the demographic-marketing duets game.  From Kid Rock (“Messin’ with the Kid”) and Keith Urban (“One Day Away”) to Beth Hart (“What You Gonna Do About Me”) and Aerosmith (“Evil Twin”), he proves secure and savvy enough to suggest he knows the difference between selling out and buying in. 

Brothers of the 4x4
A Fiendish Threat (Hank 3)

Until one of Ziggy Marley’s or Jakob Dylan’s kids starts recording, Hank Williams III will have to do as the face of third-generation musical superstardom.  Or is that “superstardumb”?  In more innocent times, his well-chronicled appetite for personal and professional self-destruction might have made him an icon of rebellion, but nowadays it amounts to little more than what celebrity gossip columnists report during a slow Lindsay Lohan week.  
Speaking of destructive appetites, the nearly simultaneous release of his latest two albums might’ve seemed gutsy had Guns N’ Roses not released Use Your Illusion I and II at the same time in 1991.  But they did.  And Bruce Springsteen repeated the gimmick one year later, by which time it already felt old.  Anyway, nothing on either the double-disc Brothers of the 4x4 (sloppy-drunk rebel pride) or the single-disc A Fiendish Threat (country punk heavy on distortion) will have anyone mentioning Williams in the same breath as GNR or the Boss anytime soon--that is, unless flinging twenty-nine songs at the wall to see what sticks is the new legendary.  
For one thing, Williams’ vocals never transcend generic redneck.  For another, his words don’t either.  Willie Nelson might locate something in “Hurtin for Certin,” but Rick Rubin would’ve never suggested it to Johnny Cash.  And, frankly, even the twenty-plus-year-old deep album cuts of Jason & the Scorchers cut deeper.  “I think I see the sun a-slowly dyin’,” Williams sings on “Loners 4 Life.”  Alas, the grandsun doesn’t seem to be faring any better.

This Yesterday Will Never End
(Big Round)

If you could isolate this Brooklyn band’s instrumental tracks from Elijah Miller’s vocals and words, you’d hear something--from John Kleber’s experimentally loud and-or reflective Lou Reed-like guitar to Stephanie Sanders’ and Joan Chew’s John Cale-impersonating violins--that is not unworthy of the Velvet Underground.  It’s too bad Miller ruins this achievement by over-singing as badly as he overwrites.  When he isn’t doing either, as in “Things We Lost So Far,” for instance, he’s mildly charming.  At his worst, however, he demonstrates the perils of reading just enough poetry or listening to just enough Jim Morrison to think one could actually get away with writing a song called “How She Became A Tree.”  As a singer, he’ll have Velvet Underground diehards reminiscing fondly about Doug Yule.

City Heart +
(Rock Ridge)

Be careful when looking this singer-songwriter up at usually reliable website has confused him with a British comedian of the same name.  Not that anyone hearing this guitar-strumming North Carolinian would ever mistake him for British.  His sunny tenor singing recalls no one so much as Christopher Cross (a Texan!).  And although he shares a surname with the Three Stooges, Howard’s folksy meditations on romance (“You, Me And Someday”), rootlessness (“Home Sweet Home”), and more romance (“Safe To Say”) are about as funny as a Band-Aid.  All in all, he comes across like an ideal opening act for Jack Johnson.  And caveat emptor when buying this album: It’s just his six-track *City Heart* EP from February fattened with acoustic renditions and two bonus cuts.

Illinois Entertainer Reviews 2013: J-L

Precious Memories Volume II

Christianity has played a large role in this country superstar’s life--from his churchgoing Georgia youth to the reason he and his wife of nearly twenty-five years are still married--and his first volume of evangelical hymns has sold almost two million copies.  So it’s no surprise that he’d record a followup.  It is disappointing, however, that there’s not even a smidgen of originality in his interpretations.  On the other hand, to an increasingly unchurched music-listening populace (and an increasingly tradition-averse generation of evangelicals reared on “praise songs”), Jackson’s straightforwardly homespun, faithfully drawled performances might be just the thing to situate these folk songs (which is, after all, at least one thing they are) in the canon of what Rod Stewart fans know as the “Great American Songbook.”


The surface tension in this British hottie’s vulgarly explosive pop goes back at least as far as Jerry Lee Lewis.  In “Problem” she wants to get “lick[ed] down” and concludes “there’s no salvation for a bad girl.”  In “Stop Me” she wants to get “fuck[ed]” in Paris and wears pumps to be “closer to God.”  But the surface is where the tension remains because Kills herself only goes back as far as Hall & Oates (sampled in “Daddy’s Girl”), Sid and Nancy (name checked in “Devils Don’t Fly”), and Cyndi Lauper (vocally imitated throughout, to the particular detriment of the otherwise stunning classic-girl-group homage “Outta Time”).  As for Prince, Kills gives him a run for his money where both “Controversy” and making like a rabbit are concerned.

Didn’t It Rain 
(Warner Bros.)

More O.K. covers of (mostly) blues standards, this time with Laurie acknowledging his vocal limitations by sharing the mic with Gabby Moreno (“Kiss of Fire,” “The Weed Smoker’s Dream”), Jean McClain (“The St. Louis Blues,” “Send Me to the ’Lectric Chair,” “I Hate a Man like You,” the gospel title cut), and Taj Mahal (“Vicksburg Blues”).  Would that he shared it more.  Producer Joe Henry and the crack sidemen do what they can to ambience things up, and at times it’s almost enough.  Meanwhile, lest anyone thought all the jokes based on Laurie’s starring role in House were spent mocking his first album, here’s another: If he eventually eclipses his acting career by continuing to make albums, there’ll come a time when people simply refer to him as Doctor Who?

Greetings and Salutations
(Fat Wreck Chords)

Take Less Than Jake’s 2011 EP, mesh it with Less Than Jake’s 2012 EP, add the two non-EP cuts “View from the Middle” (a song extolling political moderation) and “Flag Holders Union” (a song conflating moderation, indecision, and the Cuban Missile Crisis), and--voilà--a new twelve-track Less Than Jake album!  Will the EP-buying LTJ diehards who’ve already sprung for most of these power-ska declarations of in-dependence be cool with having to buy them again?  Probably not.  LTJ’s fringe demographic, however, might consider its patience rewarded: Sax-and-trombone-buttressed catchiness abounds.  That lead singer Chris Demakes has nothing more to say than that he has nothing more to say than what he said in 2006‘s “The Rest of My Life” almost doesn’t matter.

Let Us In Americana: The Music of Paul McCartney ... for Linda

If there’s anything for which music consumers have been clamoring less than a new solo Paul McCartney album, it’s a collection of long-famous compositions by the erstwhile Cute Beatle and Head Wing performed by long semi-famous roots-folkies.  Yet, now that such a collection has arrived, it turns out to have been (almost) worth clamoring for.  Jim Lauderdale and Sam Bush run away with “I’m Looking Through You” and “I’ve Just Seen a Face” respectively, with Buddy Miller’s “Yellow Submarine” not far behind.  Why Ketch Secor wants to “Give Ireland Back to the Irish” or Holly Williams to subject the 21st century to “My Love” is anyone’s guess.  But, on the whole, the steel guitars and redneck accents take the stuffing out of Sir Paul to salutary effect.


Back To Forever 
(Fat Possum)

It’s no slight to this Illinois native to say she writes (melodically always, verbally sometimes) like Stevie Nicks and (minus the frayed vocal cords) sings like her too.  In fact, given Nicks’ knack for creating (you’ll forgive the expression) classic pop-rock, the comparison is a compliment.  The apparently anti-surface-mining “Mountaintop Removal” aside (there are other places to become one with nature after all), there’s not a dumb or musically maladroit cut on this album.  Riffs and hooks co-mingle just as they should.  And while there’s filler (“Cold Fish” has mediocre Alanis Morisette tattooed all over it), it just proves that Lissie’s a mere mortal rather than a goddess in progress.  And therein end the Stevie Nicks comparisons, for better and for worse (but mostly better).


Andy Fairweather Low has long paid his bills by playing guitar and singing on albums or tours by more famous performers, but he wouldn’t have gotten those gigs if he weren’t money in the bank.  He excels at conversationally re-contextualizing blues, soul, and gospel tropes and tunefully setting them to pop styles that, in addition to the aforementioned genres, include a few that would’ve seemed right at home in the days of Vaudeville.  Whether exhorting (“If you can’t have what you want, / hold on tight to what you got”), criticizing (“Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John have sold out to the rich”), supplicating (“Take me to the river and wash my sins away”), or devoting an entire acoustic waltz to “Love, Hope, Faith & Mercy,” he drinks from an ocean of wisdom.

Quality Street: A Seasonal Selection for All the Family 
(Yep Roc)

Lowe has spent the last forty-plus years promulgating everything from pub-rock and power-pop to neo-rockabilly and autumnal acoustic introspection, all with a gimlet eye focused on both the log in his own eye and the splinter in his neighbor’s.  And on Quality Street: A Seasonal Selection for All the Family, he reaps what he has sown.  More than anything else, he and his jauntily rootsy combo sound relaxed, as at peace with both Santa and the Virgin Birth as C.S. Lewis was in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  Seamlessly blended cover tunes, traditional numbers, two originals (one catchy and funny, one thought provoking)--it’s nearly impossible to tell where the secular ends and the sacred begins, maybe because for Lowe the two are one.

Illinois Entertainer Reviews 2013: M--N

The House of Mercy
(Continental Record Services)

Can a white woman sing the blues?  In the case of England’s Bex Marshall, the answer is “Somewhat,” which is to say she does an O.K. imitation of Wales’ Bonnie Tyler doing an O.K. imitation of Texas’s Janis Joplin.  Can Marshall write the blues?  If by “writing” one means devising rough-and-tumble rhythms that semi-effectively distract from the nondescript nature of the melodies they undergird, yes.  If, however, one means crafting lyrics of epigrammatic concision, not so much (although the juxtaposition of “Love your heart, / so cut out the fat” [“Love”] and “Bite me, / you can suck my blood” [“Bite Me”] is fun to ponder).  Can Marshall play electric guitar?  Sure.  But as the unplugged, non-blues instrumental “Big Man” demonstrates, she plays acoustic stringed instruments even better.

White Buffalo
(Fat Possum)

Yes, he re-spelled his surname because he knows Latin.  Yet Mathus is not entirely pretentious.  A native of Mississippi, he comes by his Oxford drawl and roots-rock affinity naturally.  Unfortunately, he’s not unique.  So he tends to sound generic except for when his rhythm section hits upon an uncommonly propulsive bounce (“[I Wanna Be Your] Satellite”) or when he paraphrases Billy Joe Shaver so unashamedly that you almost believe us poor lost souls really will be diamonds someday (“Poor Lost Souls”).  Sometimes even generic Mathus hits the spot.  “Fake Hex” wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Exile on Main Street.  But calling, let alone drawling, a song called “Self” was a mistake--as was trying to beat Paul McCartney at writing a song called “Run Devil Run.”


Lemmy Kilmister’s recent health scare caused not only the postponement of several Motörhead shows but also a realization among the band’s fans that--hard though it may be to believe--Motörhead might not be around forever.  Aftershock makes appreciating the trio while it’s here easy enough: From Lemmy’s phlegmy, ravaged vocals to Phil “Wizzo” Campbell’s and Mikkey Dee’s indefatigable ability to generate high-voltage momentum, every key piece of Motörhead’s sonic template remains in place.  What makes those pieces sound more generic than they are: lyrics that merely reiterate Lemmy’s long-familiar commitment to impassioned stoicism.  What makes those pieces sound less generic than they are: “Keep Your Powder Dry” and “Dust and Glass,” which could teach AC/DC and Eric Clapton (respectively) a thing or two.

To All the Girls 

The only problem with Nelson’s second album of 2013 is that, at an hour-surpassing eighteen songs (a double vinyl album), it’s too long.  There’s nothing wrong with the concept: Willie and one talented (usually country) female superstar at a time sing (mostly country, mostly slow) love and love-lost songs to each other.  And there’s certainly nothing wrong with the vocal or the instrumental execution.  Take the ten or twelve best performances, re-sequence them for maximum stylistic flow, absorb them five or six songs (one vinyl side) at a time, and the novelty doesn’t overstay its welcome.  It even deepens a little (i.e., enough).  The other cuts belong on the bonus disc of a deluxe edition that Sony could issued posthumously--assuming, that is, that Nelson ever dies.


In 1985, Amy Grant released a Contemporary Christian Music album called Find a Way that A&M Records cross-marketed to pop radio with moderate success.  A few years and albums later, the gambit paid off, and Grant was a star.  Enter Britt Nicole, whose latest CCM album Gold (released last year on Sparrow Records) now has Capitol Records seeing crossover dollar signs.  The bells-and-whistles production is certainly on par with whatever’s tickling hit-radio ears these days, and, also certainly, role-model-seeking young women should be glad they’re being offered something besides Madonna, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, and Ke$ha.  Still, Gold sounds like nothing so much as ephemera.  Nicole no doubt means well.  But we all know where roads paved with good intentions lead.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Illinois Entertainer Reviews 2013: O-R

(In the Red)

All revved up with nowhere to go, these reunited garage-rocking punks sound none too happy about discovering how small the pond in which they were once big frogs has become in the 15-or-so years since their breakup.  No wonder the album’s called Desperation and that its best song, “Call the Police,” finds Greg, Eric, and Jack Oblivian partying in Cajun country and even mentioning bayous--i.e., dreaming of bigger ponds.  For the most part, however, they sound too claustrophobic and too nostalgic.  In “Little War Child” (the background vocals and junk-shop riffs of which identify it as a New York Dolls tribute) and the title cut (in which they follow U2‘s “I Will Follow”) their nostalgia bears fruit.  Nearly everything else dies on the vine.

Feels like Carolina 
(Broken Bow)

The cover of this album shows four young, hunky rednecks out standing in their field.  The one farthest from the camera is wearing a baseball cap.  The others are hatless with fashionably gel-sculpted hair.  All of them are wearing blue jeans and dark, untucked shirts.  The group member closest to the camera has tattooed forearms and five-o’clock shadow.  The one to the far right has a heavy-metal goatee.  They’re all smiling, maybe because they can’t believe that folks are actually paying them to make country-rock of such utterly stultifying nondescriptiveness.  Nothing sparkles--not the melodies, not the clichés, and certainly not the inanities.  “I’ll bring the music, you bring the beer,” they sing.  Beer?  It would take hallucinogens to transform this music into a party soundtrack.

Honey Locust Honky Tonk
(GBV Inc.)

Since his “real” band is called Guided by Voices, it’s only slightly waggish to wonder what voices Pollard is being guided by.  Pete Townshend’s?  (“Strange and Pretty Day” could pass for an embryonic “Let My Love Open the Door.”)  David Bowie’s?  (“She Hides in Black” could pass undetected on a glam-rock compilation.)  Michael Stipe’s?  (Pollard’s hoarse semi-intelligibility could have folks thinking “Who Buries the Undertaker?” is about blueberries.)  Squeezed into 34 minutes, many of these 17 songs come and go so quickly you can’t tell whether their riffs and hooks would’ve amounted to anything given the chance.  Meanwhile, of the nine that exceed 120 seconds, “It Disappears in the Least Likely Hands (We May Never Not Know)” and “Airs” sure would’ve made a dandy Record Store Day single.

Head Down

Rival Sons’ first album had critics breathlessly heralding them as the second coming of Led Zeppelin.  Whatever the merits of that comparison, their latest effort finds them tunneling backward beyond Page and Plant to Page and Plant’s roots in first-wave high-voltage British Invasion blue-eyed R&B: namely, Small Faces.  And you know what?  Although Jay Buchanan is no Steve Marriott, he’s a reasonable enough facsimile thereof to make up for the negligible extent to which bassist Robin Everhart is no Ronnie Lane and drummer Mike Miley is no Kenney Jones.  No single track stands out (except for “True,” an acoustic misstep), but the riffs render track-specific ID moot.  El Lay kids these guys may be, but their heart and soul are strictly mid-‘60s British mod.

Illinois Entertainer Reviews 2013: S


The Essential Boz Scaggs 

This two-disc compilation isn’t the “essential” Boz Scaggs--not with the effervescent, single “Hollywood” in absentia.  But it supersedes 1997’s two-disc compilation My Time (which also omitted “Hollywood”) by getting to cherry pick highlights from the albums that Scaggs has recorded during the years since My Time appeared.  The half-dozen cuts from Silk Degrees still shimmer like the pop-soul gems they revealed themselves to be upon impact in 1976, and “Heart of Mine,” Scaggs’ 1988 Top-40 swan song, has lost none of its luster.  But what’s most impressively undiminished, from the forty-plus-year-old “Loan Me a Dime” to the eight-month-old “Gone Baby Gone,” is Scaggs’ knack for choosing and writing material perfectly suited to his impressively undiminished velvet-blues voice.

Volume Three

This latest installment in the M. Ward-Zooey Deschanel musical marriage made in heaven kicks off with “I’ve Got Your Number, Son,” an exuberant homage to Phil Spector’s girl-group Wall of Sound circa the Ronettes’ “I Can Hear Music,” which the Beach Boys recorded even better.  And speaking of the Beach Boys, if they can ever get along long enough to make a sequel to last year’s reunion album, they could do a lot worse than just cover these fourteen sunny songs straight up.  Until they do, however, Ward’s and Deschanel’s versions will more than do.  Sure they’re retro.  But no more so than Karen Chandler’s “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me” (Track Nine) and Blondie’s “Sunday Girl” (Track 11), both of which have long been overdue for refurbishing.

2 Guns

Pigeonholing critics have likened Scott and Kim Collins to such legendary roots-bending couples as Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, Johnny Cash and June Carter, Ike and Tina Turner, and John Doe and Exene Cervenka.  And insofar as the pigeonholers have The Knitters as well as X in mind, the Doe-Cervenka comparisons hold up--especially on this album’s romping-stomping “White Flags.”  “The Juggler,” however, could almost pass for pre-Fleetwood Mac Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks while the soulful buoyancy of the piano-driven “Heart Darker” could qualify the Collinses for membership in Delaney & Bonnie & Friends.  Meanwhile, everything you may have heard or read about Kim’s current battle with breast cancer is true, guaranteeing the tearfully pleading “Something I Said” an added poignancy that’s Kim’s and Kim’s alone.

The Rhinebeck Sessions
(Crosseyed Bear)

The title refers to the Hudson Valley town in which the saxophonist Jay Beckenstein, the keyboardist Tom Schuman, and their current supporting cast spent three days improvising, writing, and recording Spyro Gyra studio album Number 28.  And, sure enough, the usual catchy crossover-jazz elements--funk here, exotic rhythms there, abundant ritzy-joint-aural-wallpaper touches throughout--emerge from the start.  The problem is that, except for “I Know What You Mingus,” the titles seem more like interchangeable afterthoughts than signposts to whatever these virtuosi were thinking when they discovered the grooves.  And the problem with “I Know What You Mingus” is that, while it evinces trad chops, Mingus himself may not have known what they meant.  As for “Who Knew!,” the exclamation point should be a question mark, no?

Comedown Machine

The from-all-over-the-place sonics alone prove that these hotshots must have been having fun when they decided to reconvene.  Scarcely recognizable as the band that debuted in 2001 to accusations of channeling Lou Reed, they now channel several generations of electronic sparkle-pop as well, from the Bee Gees (falsetto vocals!) and New Order to Pet Shop Boys and A-ha.  And by feeding such influences into the blender of their imagination, talent, and ambition rather than the centrifuge of the micro-marketing age, they hit upon something as entertaining as it is original.  Strangely, given the clarity of the production, the words are hard to make out.  So one tracks them down and reads along--only to discover that making them out, apparently, isn’t the point.

Images Du Futur
(Secretly Canadian)

The label’s “Secretly Canadian,” but the band isn’t.  Say it loud: Suuns are from Montreal and proud.  Not only was the video for this album’s first single (“Edie’s Dream”) shot in Québécois forests, but, according to the lead singer Ben Shemie, the album even derives some of its gestalt from recent Quebec student protests.  Those details don’t matter.  What does is the hooks that Suuns chisel out from what initially sounds like an unpromising grinding together of noise guitars, random electronics, dub-worthy (or at least club-worthy) bass frequencies, and vocals so echoey that most of what Shemie sings comes off semi-coherent.  His enunciation of “Music won’t save you,” however, in the song of the same name is quite clear.  The band plays as if it doesn’t agree.