Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Moving on over

Hi. Thanks for dropping by. This used to be the site for me to post my CD reviews, but I'm now just posting them on my regular blog, Modern Acoustic at http://modernacoustic.blogspot.com so everything will be in one, easy-to-find place.  Check it out.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

CD reviews: Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, Jakob Dylan, Pieta Brown, Jackie Greene, Crooked Still, Shannon McNally, In the Cinema

(Out now)
Despite the fact that Grace Potter and the Nocturnals are a killer, must-see live band, their past studio albums have never held up to the promise quite as well.
But with this self-titled release, the group is on the verge of something big.
First and foremost is the band’s change in personnel. Grace has a new bass player, Catherine Popper, and has added a second guitarist, Benny Yurco, to her longtime bandmates guitarist Scott Tournet and drummer Matthew Burr.
The new lineup allows for a fuller – and sexier – sound, and a chance for Grace to step out front even more.
But don’t be led astray, she’s not putting down her Flying V or forsaking her Hammond B3 chores. That is very clear from the first tune “Paris (Ooh La La),’’ which opens with some screaming guitars. It sounds like a ’70s Heart tune on steroids. It’s a great way to introduce her new band and sound.
The best tunes are the hard-rocking numbers, including “Medicine,” “Only Love” and “Hot Summer Night,” which mix the dual-guitar punch with the dual female vocal harmonies. And “Oasis,” another standout, rides along on a trippy ’60s feel.
This is a sexier Grace than we’ve seen before. On “Goodbye Kiss,’’ breakup lyrics are woven into a reggae beat. And ballads “Tiny Light,” the band’s single, and “Colors” are sure to win them some commercial radioplay.
Grace continues to show off her great pipes. She can belt out and lift a song or play it coy and quiet when the mood calls for it, such as on “One Short Night,” an autobiographical tune about an affair.
The band shows its versatility in the album-ending tunes, from the soulful “That Phone” to the scorcher “Hot Summer Night” to the near-country stylings of “Things I Never Needed.”
This is the new Grace Potter. Some of her jam-band fans may not take to her new sound, but it is a good fit for her, mixing bits of ‘70s classic rock and southern rock influences – with a dash of Tina Turner – and melding them into something fresh that showcases the talents of a very talented performer.

“Woman + Country” (Out now)
There is something other than his genes that makes Jakob Dylan someone worth following. He has a mysterious look, an interesting voice and a history of decent, if not remarkable, tunes.
And even though it’s pretty clear that this Dylan, now 40 years old, is probably never going to take the world by storm, it’s OK.
“Women + Country,’’ his second solo album since disbanding the Wallflowers, is a warm, enjoyable album. What it lacks in edginess, is made up for in a laid-back appeal worthy of a backyard barbecue on a hot, summer night. In fact, if he was willing to bring his band, we would gladly set up a nice spot on our porch right next to the cooler.
On board for this album is T Bone Burnett as producer and Neko Case as a backup singer. Now you really wish they would stop by, right?
As for the songs, the opener “Nothing but the Whole Wide World to Give’’ immediately sets the tone and pace of the album. Dylan sings in his husky, above-whisper voice as Neko skates along behind him on the chorus. She never takes over a song but always provides a beautiful harmony to his lead.
“Lend a Hand” has a slightly New Orleans sound with trumpet backing and “Holy Rollers for Love” has some dirty guitar backing. Finding a standout tune is difficult, but the album is generally a good listen.
The pacing seems incredibly similar to that of the Burnett-produced “Raising Sand’’ that brought together Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. At times you wish Burnett would just remove the reigns and let them rip.
But as long as you know what you’re getting and not upset about what might have been, “Women + Country’’ will not let you down.

One and All (out now)
Pieta Brown is another child of a famous musician-father, the deeper-than-deep-voiced folkie Greg Brown. And while she didn’t inherit that from her dad, she did get some serious musical skill.
“One and All,’’ which she coproduced with Bo Ramsey, is filled with tales of love and loneliness and everything in between. The album was recorded live and features some standout backing from members of Calexico, Alison Krauss’ band and her frequent collaborator Ramsey.
Her voice (since we’re sure everyone wants to know what it sounds like) has a beauty and seductiveness without being wimpy, reminding us a bit in tone of Edie Brickell on songs such as the opener “Wishes Falling Through the Rain’’ and “Prayer of Roses.’’
Pieta adds an upbeat rhythm to “El Guero,’’ which was also featured on her last album but in stripped-down acoustic form.
Other songs, such as “Faller” and “It Wasn’t There,” offer depth and color.
What the album lacks, as with Jakob Dylan’s new album, is some contrast – some rocking or uptempo numbers or some differing moods. Individually the songs hold up, but as a group, they tend to blur together.

Till the Light Comes (out June 29)
We spent much of our last issue discussing Jackie Greene and his career so we won’t rehash it again. (To read the last issue, click HERE)
Surprisingly, “Till the Light Comes’’ is young Jackie’s sixth solo album. And despite how much time he has spent recently performing with members of the Grateful Dead and immersed in the jam-band concert scene, “Till the Light’’ continues the path of his last album, “Giving Up the Ghost’’: rock, soul and blues spiced with Jackie’s great guitar riffing. This makes us happy.
Long, noodling guitar solos? Not Jackie. Where he shines is on introspective songs such as “A Moment of Temporary Color” and “Grindstone,” in which he offers his insights on life wrapped in a wide-range of sonic colors.
We are particularly fond of the more muscular numbers like “Medicine,” which has an early Who-like bounce complete with handclaps, and the closing, title track.
But Jackie, who plays a boatload of other instruments on this album, including organ, Wurlitzer, Mellotron, glockenspiel and electric sitar, is just as comfortable with acoustic tunes such as the gentle, almost-country-ish “1961.”
Will Jackie Greene finally get his due as a solo artist? He has from us.

Some Strange Country (out now)
With their fourth release, their second with the current lineup, Crooked Still has secured its place as one of the premiere “newgrass” acts around, along with the Punch Brothers and the Infamous Stringdusters.
Crooked Still broke out after the release of its second album, “Shaken By a Low Sound,” which melded virtuoso playing by Greg Liszt on banjo, Rushad Eggleston on cello and Corey DiMario on acoustic bass with the angelic vocals of Aoife O’Donovan. Eggleston departed after that, and was replaced by Tristan Clarridge on cello and Brittany Haas on fiddle, providing the group a fuller sound.
To our ears, the first album with the new group, “Still Crooked,’’ seemed a little tentative, like the band was trying to figure out what they had going. But on “Some Strange Country,” it’s clear Crooked Still is back in full gear.
The album’s first two songs, “Sometimes in This Country” and “The Golden Vanity,” make a statement. Where the last album is more subdued, this song immediately jumps out at you. Put in your earbuds and listen closely to the enthusiastic interplay between the instruments.
O’Donovan gets her chance to shine on the Celtic-sounding “Distress,’’ where her beautiful soprano glides sweetly and gently over the band’s backing. One of our worries about the earlier makeup of Crooked Still was whether the strong personalities/egos could accept a band concept. This group doesn’t have that issue. The interplay between Liszt, Clarridge and Haas is a joy to hear.
Crooked Still is known for its interpretations of traditional tunes and this album continues that trend offering seven such tunes including Peggy Seeger’s haunting “Henry Lee” and Doc Watson’s “I’m Troubled.” But there are also four originals – including “Locust in the Willow, which gets back to that hyper-grass style we love them for.
Closing out the album is a very cool cover of the Rolling Stones’ “You Got the Silver.” O’Donovan surely gets into this and Liszt’s banjo stands out as a highlight. We like the idea of contemporary rock tunes redone in the Crooked Still style. Let’s hope there is more of this to come.

Coldwater (out now)
Shannon McNally has one of those seductive, Southern-tinged voices that makes you take notice when you hear it. That’s what happened when we first heard the album “Geronimo” years ago.
Since then, we’ve followed her career though have never actually seen her play live.
Originally from Long Island, Shannon moved to LA before taking to the South, first in New Orleans and then in Mississippi after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.
Her new album, the self-released “Coldwater,” with her new Miss.-based band Hot Sauce and with the guidance of late great producer Jim Dickinson, offers up a slow-burning dose of blues and country. The band adds some saucy guitar licks tossed around Shannon’s sultry voice, which sounds like a sultry Lucinda Williams.
The album is comprised of only eight songs, scant for this modern age of the 12- to 15-song CD, but Shannon makes most of the short count.
Standouts among her five originals are the leadoff track, the bluesy rocker “This Isn’t My Home,” and both “Bohemian Wedding Song” and “Jack B. Nimble,” which bubble along on country-rock beats.
There are also three covers: a sizzling uptempo version of “Lonesome, Ornery and Mean” and the piano-based “Freedom to Stay,” both made famous by Waylon Jennings. The album closes with the third, Dylan’s “Postitively 4th Street,” which seems incredibly out of place here and really the only misstep on a fine release.

For the Struggle (out now)
Whenever we do CD review packages, we like to include at least one album from a band or musician that few people know. (Hey, Rolling Stone won’t do it, so someone has to!)
So let us introduce you to In the Cinema, a duo of brothers, Ryan and Joe Hughes from Minneapolis, whose album “For the Struggle” is a refreshing mix of what they call “beat-driven folktronica.”
The tunes have a folk guitar and keyboard base which are then layered with synthesizer, drums, samples – and, yes, glockenspiel – to give them an edge.
Ryan is the songwriter in the band, filtering his views on hope, desire and redemption in such tunes as “Shelter, Late at Night” and “Tie Me Up,’’ while Joe drops in the percussive details.
“Theatre ... and the Instinct,’’ one of our favorite numbers, has a driving, drum-filled sound, as Ryan sings about an apparent love gone bad. Blips, buzzes and electronic beats strike a nerve.
Each song provides its own unique personality and sound. The glock adds atmosphere to “Watch the Window,” as bongos do to “Never Leave.”
“For the Struggle” is not your parents’ folk music or your younger sister’s electronica. It is something new and deserves a listen.
And, if you find yourself in need of something to do while listening to this album, the Hughes boys have provided some crayons to color in their CD cover.

Monday, March 15, 2010

CD Reviews: Josh Ritter's "So Runs the World Away,' Patty Griffin's "Downtown Church"

“So Runs the World Away” (Out May 4)

Through the years we’ve become very familiar with Josh’s stories, both in song and between songs in concert. From “Lillian, Egypt” to “The Temptation of Adam,” he’s proven to be a natural storyteller. So it is no surprise that on his new album, the literary “So Runs the World Away,” the focus turns to tales of cursed mummies and ships seeking new worlds. It is also makes sense that Josh is working on his first novel, called “Bright’s Passage,” due sometime next year. The songs on “So Runs the Word Away,” says Josh, “are larger and more detailed and feel to me as if they were painted in oil on large canvasses.”
As we’ve learned with each new album, Josh constantly moves in new directions, never willing to settle in a style or a sound for too long.
So after the rockin’, brash “Historical Conquests” album, this time we get a much more cerebral one overflowing with imagery set against a palette of sound, rather than the raucous backing of the past, by the newly dubbed Royal City Band of Zack Hickman (bass), Sam Kassirer (keyboards), Austin Nevins (guitar) and Liam Hurley (drums). We also get, for the first time, a female voice, provided by Dawn Landes, backing Josh on some tunes.
The album opens with a 56-second, almost orchestral instrumental “Curtains.” It is followed by “Change of Time,” a love song with an intricate musical layering of instruments similar to “Conquests,” and one of the signatures of Sam as producer. (He’s produced these last two Josh albums, as well as Erin McKeown’s last album, “Hundreds of Lions.”)
Our first taste of Josh’s storytelling on the album is on “The Curse,” about a mummy who is awakened by an archeologist and falls in love with her. The song is mesmerizingly brilliant, filled with lines that make you lean in to your stereo to hear every word: “She asks are you cursed but his answer’s obscured in a sandstorm of flashbulbs and rowdy reporters.” As the mummy grows stronger, the woman grows weaker, and there lies the curse. The spare and delicate backing by band adds to the tension of the song.
The other standout story-song on the album is “Another New World,” a 7-minute, 39-second journey to new lands aboard the ship the Annabel Lee, this captain’s love. Is it possible Josh is using the Edgar Allan Poe love story, “Annabel Lee,’’ as a guide to his own tale? The song is filled with incredible imagery, as if Josh actually took the trip himself.
It’s good to point out that not all the songs on “So Runs the World Away” are contemplative ones. “Rattling Locks” rocks with Josh playing the angry ex, spitting out, “Black hole, black hole how can your two eyes be empty as they look/All along I thought I was giving you my love but you were just stealing it and now I want back every single thing that you took.” This song, which opens with a percussion/guitar growl, will be a showstopper in concert. “The Remnant,” with Josh churning out the lyrics faster than you can take them in, is another beat-heavy, rockin’ tune.
There are plenty more songs to explore on the album. “Southern Pacifica,” the Springsteen-esque “Lantern” and “Long Shadows” are all worthy of the journeys they take you on. “Folk Bloodbath” is a tune that Josh has kicked around for years, but never recorded. It finally sees the light of day, complete with female backing vocals.
“So Runs the World Away” once again expands the art of Josh Ritter. His stories have now taken on a life of their own and galvanized his songs.

Patty Griffin

“Downtown Church” (Out now)

No one should be surprised by Patty Griffin’s latest album, an all-gospel affair titled “Downtown Church.” For those listening closely to her last two albums, there were hints at this direction in a number of those songs.
It is also not stunning to realize how well her voice fits the genre. It may not have been apparent that gospel is in her DNA, but we are fairly certain it is in her soul.
“Downtown Church” is a collection of 14 songs, mostly covers but a few originals recorded in a 160-year-old Presbyterian church in Nashville. Each song is sung in Patty’s distinctive, wonderfully expressive voice and many include guests – ranging from Emmylou Harris to Regina and Ann McCrary, Buddy Miller, and others.
The album opens with Patty singing solo on Hank Williams’ hush of a tune “House of Gold.” But that mood doesn’t last long, as she jumps right into the uptempo Southern rave “Move Up,” with help from the McCrarys, Miller, and Jim Lauderdale. You can just picture the congregation in the church pews in full swing.
She continues to mix traditional tunes (“Wade Into the Water”) with blues (an inspiring “If I Had My Way”). She even contributes two originals, “Little Fire” and “Coming Home to Me,” that meld perfectly with the album’s spirit of redemption and the power of faith.
To our ears, the best tunes are the ones that make us move our body, such as the aforementioned “Move Up” and the snakey R&B-tinged “I Smell a Rat.”
In all, “Downtown Church” may not end up as one of Patty Griffin’s most widely loved albums, but it is clearly a part of her musical personality and it is a genuine expression of her passion.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

CD Review: David Rawlings Machine

David Rawlings Machine - "Friend of a Friend" (out now)
It’s been six long years since Gillian Welch and David
Rawlings have released an album. Their avid fans, us included, have been asking – no – begging for some new music. Yes, we have scoured YouTube for clips of a tune we call “Throw Me a Rope.” We have downloaded various quality concert audio of another unrecorded tune called “Knuckleball Catcher.” And we have gone faithfully to their performances at the Newport Folk Festival, the Big Surprise Tour, and anywhere else within a 100-mile radius.
And yet we kept wondering: Where is the new album? Well, it arrived recently. It wasn’t what we expected, but it was more than a pleasant surprise.
Instead of Gillian at the helm, Dave Rawlings gets a chance to be the frontman of his first Dave Rawlings Machine album, “Friend of a Friend.”
The album continues the duo’s basic sound – a mix of old-timey, country and bluegrass – adding fiddle, banjo, and bass from their friends in the band Old Crow Medicine Show. Dave’s soprano voice takes the lead throughout with Gillian providing the backup. It’s a nice change that works well especially on the slower numbers, like the opener “Ruby.”
You’d expect Dave’s guitar to be showcased, but that really isn’t the case here. He gets a few licks here and there but for the most part, he keeps the band orientation front and center.
Other songs that stand out are his upbeat, Ryan Adams collaboration “To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High),” the hoedown “It’s Too Easy,” and the standard “Monkey and the Engineer.”
The highlight of the album is Dave’s “Method Acting/Cortez the Killer” pairing, a 10-minute dream that bridges the generation gap between Bright Eyes and Neil Young. A great combo. We saw this done live and it really is mesmerizing.
While this album not quite what we expected, it’s nice to hear new tunes from these guys. Let’s hope it doesn’t take another six years for Gillian to come out with her new album!

Monday, September 28, 2009

CD Reviews: Regina Spektor, Erin McKeown, the Avett Brothers, Thao & the Get Down Stay Down

Regina Spektor - Far
Out now
Regina Spektor albums are like an art gallery. Not a museum gallery, where ancient works depict life as it was, but a contemporary space where each artwork tells a story — maybe about who the artist is or how they view the world politically, socially, environmentally.
In this way, Regina’s songs are snippets of life – hers? others? – in palettes of intense color, wrapped gently in mostly piano-driven arrangement told in a voice that rises and falls in fluttering waves that if it weren’t so beautiful it might be thought of as pretentious.
Her new album, “Far,” continues a path started with her previous work, “Begin to Hope,” which brought her from that Quirky Russian New York Anti-Folk Singer to indie-pop darling. That is to say her songs became a little more accessible to the average music fan. That doesn’t mean she’s now the second coming of Celine Dion. In fact, what makes Regina and her songs so special is her ability to embrace that wondrous quirky side of herself.
The songs on “Far,” like looking at gallery art, need to be taken in individually and given multiple listens. The opener “The Calculation,” a bouncy little love song, is followed by the captivating “Eet” (yes, eet is the entire chorus!) . Each tune tells a story or a snippet of a story, big or small, of a place in time, a relationship, all from her unique perspective. “Wallet” tells of her returning a lost wallet to Blockbuster.
And the album’s single “Laughing With,” deals with the power of God: “No one laughs at God in a hospital/No one laughs at God in a war/ No one’s laughing at God/ When they’ve lost all they’ve got/ And they don’t know what for.” Powerful words, to be sure.
What really makes this album and Regina herself special is her voice, which she uses to gorgeous affect – at once captivating, beckoning and urging you to listen. She can move from a whisper to roar and back like on “Human of the Year.”
A couple of tunes at first seem a little heavy on production. But after multiple listens, you just can’t help loving the robot-like effects on “Mach-ine” and the playful beats of “Dance Anthem of the ‘80s.”
All in all, “Far” takes off where “Begin to Hope” ended. We can only hope that her quirky art will continue.

Erin McKeown - Hundreds of Lions
Out: Oct. 13
Listening to a new Erin McKeown album is like waking up on Christmas morning with high hopes but no idea what is inside those gift-wrapped boxes under the tree. In the past there was some indie-folk and ’40s jazz swing, but most of the time it was a homemade concoction of different genres and styles, masterfully delivered with class and a wink of an eye.
So how does “Hundreds of Lions” fit in? Just fine, thank you. If you liked her previous efforts, “Distillation” and “Grand” especially, “Lions” will make you smile with its wide-ranging mix of sounds. A bass saxophone anchors the delightful, head-bobbing opening track,“To a Hammer,” while Erin’s choppy guitar strum and a moody piano line keep “The Foxes” moving. “(Put the Fun Back in) the Funeral” slinks along in dark places. And the totally fun ditty “The Rascal” hits you right in the feet, with its bouncy piano beat and hand claps. It reminds us a little of Michelle Shocked’s “Jump Jim Crow.”
With each song, the more you listen, the more you hear deep inside as the lyrics, instruments and ear candy – chirps, rattles, whistles – build on each other.
The lyrics focus mainly on relationships and love and life. In the stellar tune “The Lions” Erin sings “There’s a risk/ there’s a twist/ in anything worth doing/ if you’re caught/ doing what’s proper/ you better stop before you ruin it.” The song chugs along with its circus theme but the words prove much deeper, discussing love as a high wire act.
The idea of risk is fitting for Erin. This album was originally meant to be self-financed though a series of Web concerts she called “Cabin Fever.” The idea, both risky and inventive, had her playing four unique concerts from her home and broadcasting by pay subscription live on the Internet. The hope was that freeing herself from a label would allow her and her producer, Sam Kassirer, to take the time to make the best album possible. After the album was completed, “Hundreds of Lions” was picked up by Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Babe label for distribution, which should help in getting the word out.
A final note on “Hundreds of Lions”: Those that buy the physical CD, rather than the digital form of the album, are in for a treat. This is one of the most beautifully presented CDs we’ve seen. The cardboard case, with the silhouette picture of Erin on the front, is beautifully folded with a tuck-in flap to close it. Inside the lyric sheet unfolds several times and is decorated with drawings of lions.
For Erin fans, “Hundreds of Lions” is a gift indeed.

The Avett Brothers - I and Love and You
Out Sept. 29
For a while now, we’ve been hearing about the Avett Brothers. But with so many brother bands out there – the Felice Brothers, the Chemical Brothers – when it’s time to get around to listening, we’ve forgotten which one was which. So on the occasion of their first big-label album, “I and Love and You,” we finally sat down and gave the Avetts a listen, and, of course, now we’re slapping ourselves silly that we have taken so long to come around.
The Avetts – brothers Scott and Seth Avett, who play banjo and guitar, respectively, and Bob Crawford on bass-– have put together folk-rocking tunes that sound like a modern-day album by The Band. This is probably no surprise to the Avett’s avid following which has five independently produced albums of past material.
The songs on the stellar “I and Love and You” focus on the maturity of its members as they hit the age of 30. While the title song plays like a love song to Brooklyn, we’re guessing there might be deeper meaning. “January Wedding” and “And It Spread,” a fabulous breakup/ new-love song, get right to the point.
Most of the tunes feature banjo, guitar and piano; a few are punctuated with drums, and songs, such as “And It Spread” and “Kick Drum Heart,’’ really stand out.
“Ten Thousand Words” features some great guitar picking and “Tin Man” is one of our favorites, with it’s lyrics: “You can't be like me/But be happy that you can't/I see pain but I don't feel it /I am like the old tin man/I'm as worn as a stone/I keep it/ steady as I can/I see pain but I don't feel it I am like the old tin man. “
We can’t wait to see them in October. Viewing some clips of their live shows on YouTube, it is clear that on stage even the mellowest tunes are spiked with their high-energy enthusiasm.

Thao & the Get Down Stay Down - Know Better Learn Faster
Out : Oct. 13
If you were wondering what direction Thao and her two-piece band, the Get Down Stay Down, would take on their new album, the 33-second a cappella opener called “The Clap” gives you a pretty good idea. Here are the complete lyrics: “If this is how you want it OK, OK.”
Yep, the new album, titled “Know Better Learn Faster” is a breakup album, and like most of them it is chock-full of your typical breakup themes. By song titles alone, you get the picture: “Cool Yourself,” “Good Bye Good Luck,” and “Burn You Up.”
But if you heard Thao’s critically acclaimed first album, “We Brave Bee Stings and All,” full of bouncy beats and jittery acoustic guitar strumming, well, you pretty much could have guessed her breakup album
wasn’t going sound like your typical breakup album.
The lyrics may belie her sadness but the beats are still danceable and fun.
Backed by her scrappy duo of Adam Thompson on bass, keys, and additional guitar, and Willis Thompson on drums and percussion, Thao lays down those funky guitar rhythms we fell in love with on her debut. She also had some help from the violin of Andrew Bird and backing vocals of Laura Veirs.
“When We Swam” starts with Thao singing over an electric guitar line, but when she breaks into “Oh, bring your hips to me,” to a fun groove, well, how can you not move to the beat?
The title song shares the pain of her relationship now over. As she says in the album’s notes, “By the time you realize you should ‘know better, learn faster,’ it’s too late.”
As she says in the opening of the last song, “sad people dance too…” Then the bass and drums kick in and off we go.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

CD Reviews: Eilen Jewell, Sarah Borges, Sometymes Why, Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson, Ali Marcus, the Bittersweets, Marybeth D'Amico, Red Sammy

EILEN JEWELL - Sea of Tears
Due out April 21
Eilen broke on the scene with her critically acclaimed debut, “Boundary County,” back in 2006. Her low-key, ageless Americana sound was often compared to Gillian Welch. Her second album, “Letters From Sinners & Strangers,” added uptempo grooves to her story songs.
Now, with “Sea of Tears,’’ Eilen and her merry band of men – Jason Beek on drums, Johnny Sciascia on upright bass and Jerry Miller on guitar – pay homage to ’60s and early ’70s rock with a fabulous mix of 12 original and cover tunes.
Miller, an under-celebrated guitarist, may be the true star of this album. His guitar is brought to the forefront of the band’s sound but doesn’t overpower Eilen’s voice or the rest of the band.
On the opener, “Rain Roll In,” he cooks up an old Byrds sound on his electric and on the rocker “Sea of Tears” he offers a blast of ’70s riffs that will make you feel nostalgic. The band’s take on Van Morrison’s “I’m Gonna Dress in Black” feels like the sister track to the Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun” thanks to Miller’s ominous riffs. These songs are a treat.
But don’t for a minute think Eilen takes a back seat to any of this fun. Her voice may not have incredible range, but she makes up for that in feel, delivering the lyrics like she’s lived them. “Shakin’ All Over,” a cover of the Johnny Kidd & the Pirates number, will send “quivers down the backbone,” as the song says, and have you moving to the groove.
Other songs of note are “Fading Memory,” which would have fit nicely on “Boundary County,” a slinky, haunting “Sweet Rose,” Loretta Lynn’s country lament “The Darkest Day,” and “Final Hour,” a song that chugs along on a guitar riffs reminiscent of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Cold Shot.”
Eilen and the band -– who also are at the heart of the Sacred Shakers, a larger group of top New England gospel and bluegrass players – has brought old-timey folk music out of the past and into the present. This little sidetrip back 40 years is well-recommended.

SARAH BORGES AND THE BROKEN SINGLES – The Stars Are Out Due out March 24
There’s a time in every young band’s life where a decision must be made: Are you going to forever be a bar band or are you going to reach for something more? The decision could involve a change of musical direction or an altering of the band’s sound toward more general appeal. With “Reach for the Stars,” Sarah Borges’ new album, the name alone may offer a hint to where she and the Broken Singles – bassist Binky, drummer Rob Dulaney and new guitarist Lyle Brewer – are headed.
Yes, Sarah’s charming wit and Boston attitude still shine bright on “Reach for the Stars,’’ but the country twang, including the pedal steel accents, has been replaced by a more rocking pop-punk sound on a number of the tunes.
This is true for the opener and album single “Do It for Free,” which sounds like a rocked-up version of Faith Hill’s Sunday Night Football theme song, including heavy drum beat and driving guitars. A little bland compared to her best work. It is followed by “Yesterday’s Love,” which similarly doesn’t stand out, but could very well draw some radio play.
The third song, “Me and Your Ghost,” finally gets back to the Sarah we love, the ’60s girl group sound she explored on her last CD “Diamonds in the Dust.”
Two covers, the Magnetic Fields’ “No One Will Ever Love You” and the Lemonhead’s “Ride With Me,” fit nicely into her past country-rock style.
I’m a huge fan of Sarah’s and will continue to be. But too many songs like the generic rocker “I’ll Show You How” will make it hard for me to reach for the “Stars” very often.

SOMETYMES WHY – Your Heart Is a Glorious Machine Due out March 10
Sometymes Why’s “Your Heart Is a Glorious Machine” is like listening to a dream.
If you haven’t heard of the group, you know the female singing trio’s separate folk-bluegrass bands : Sometymes Why is the side project of Aoife O’Donovan of Crooked Still, Kristin Andreassen of Uncle Earl, and Ruth Unger Merenda of the Mammals.
This is not a newgrass supergroup album trying to take you by banjo-fiddle storm; instead it the melding of three gorgeous voices in beautiful harmonies in all their stripped-down dreamy glory.
Voice crush? Try voice crushes, because all three of these women can can sing. From the opening notes of “Aphrodisiaholic” to the closing of “The Sound Asleep” nine songs later, these sirens take turns on lead vocals and back-up harmonies. Each song sounds as if they were singing only to you.
Instrumentation takes a backseat, but fits the mood as necessary, a harmonica intro on “Shine It,” some gently picked mandolin on “Diamond,” some nice fiddle on “The Stupid Kiss.”
The standout tracks include a cover of the Concrete Blonde hit “Joey,” where urgency is replaced with an aching awareness, and title track “Glorious Machine,” a lush Aoife-sung tune.

Husband and wife pairings are generally not held in high regard (think Sonny and Cher, Captain & Tenille), but maybe that image will change with the terrific Kasey Chamber-Shane Nicholson album “Rattlin’ Bones.”
Chambers is an Australian who is well known for her alt-country/folk songs and her critically acclaimed 2002 album “Brickwalls & Barricades.” Nicholson is more of an unknown in these parts, though he has had some success Down Under. The two, have been married for four years and had never written together until this album. I’m guessing we’ll hear more from them because their voices are a great match. In fact, to these ears the two sound better singing together than separately.
Their songs are a mix of country, bluegrass and the blues; the lyrics are filled with sin and salvation; and the tunes are backed by guitar, fiddle and banjo.
From the opening and title track, “Rattlin’ Bones,’’ it is clear these two were made to sing together as they trade leads over a nicely picked guitar.
Chambers unleashes a big country voice on “Sweetest Waste of Time,” and “Once in a While,” a little sticky sweet with its chorus “Only hope that I make you smile maybe more than once in a while,” is saved by some nice banjo/guitar picking.
Highlights include “Monkey on a Wire,” a sinister tune that sounds like it would be right at home on a Gillian Welch album; “The Devil’s Inside My Head,” a romping number with some furious banjo with Chambers and Nicholson trading verses and harmonizing the nightmare chorus; and the electric “Jackson Hole,” which has Nicholson singing through a voice-altering device.

ALI MARCUS – The Great Migration
Out in April
Seattle singer-songwriter Ali Marcus has come a long way, if not literally then figuratively. Her new album, “The Great Migration,’’ is filled with tunes of good and bad relationships, revelations from her cross-country travels, and some fitting songs about tough economic times.
This album stands out as a great step forward – a great migration, if you will – for Ali not only as a songwriter but as an album maker.
Her past works have been filled with similar songs backed only with guitar and harmonica, but here her sweet soprano is complemented on many songs by a full band of Northwest musicians on guitar, drums, bass, and, yes, banjo, which gives them added confidence and vibrancy.
“Virginia Road” jumps right out at you, banjo is replaced by guitar then augmented by Ali’s harmonica. “Wapato,” a foot-stomping , hand-clapping rollick, sounds like it was recorded live at a hoedown in a country dance hall.
Each song has its own unique feel: “Hey John,” about an encounter with a musician and shared bad experiences in Nashville, is played solo, one of the few numbers without any backing; “Recession Blues” is an upbeat number about down times and hitting the road for escape. Other songs like “Poseidon” and “Catastrophe” provide the darker edges of life for those willing to go there.
Finally, “Minnesota.” takes its chorus from a 2008 Barack Obama speech he made in the state: “Read a book to your baby tonight/ Bless her with patience and speed/ Teach her the difference between wrong and right/ Between justice, faith and greed/That's the change we need/Minnesota.” The song movingly captures the hope the now-president has for the country and its people.

San Francisco
Out now
Chris Meyers and Hannah Prater are a good match. He's the primary songwriter, who also plays the guitars and keyboards; she's the lead singer, who makes his lyrics heartfelt and believable. When she sings on the opener, “Wreck,” “Why'd you go and wreck this all?,” you feel her pain and her anger equally. The album's band is rounded out by drummer Steve Bowman of Counting Crows fame. The group got its start in San Francisco, but moved to Nashville to put out this record – hence the title.
Backed by top-notch sidemen, including Patty Griffin guitarist Doug Lancio, Meyers and Prater produce gentle, country-rocking songs that are at once effervescent and, of course, bittersweet. “Is Anyone Safe Inside?’’ delves deeply into questions of relationships both personal and worldly. “When Is the War Over?” asks how we know when we've won or lost. The title track begins with a simple piano and Hannah singing “Goodnight, San Francisco/Goodnight all you lovers, dives, and rags/Get on home, it's getting late.” Goodnight, San Francisco, hello Nashville. Its a nice fit for the Bittersweets.

MARYBETH D'AMICO – Heaven, Hell,
Sin & Redemption
Out now
We met Marybeth online when we discovered that we had a mutual admiration for certain female singer-songwriters: Patty Griffin, Lori McKenna, and Kathleen Edwards, and more. As we found out later Marybeth, an American living in Germany, is a singer-songwriter herself and has taken her love for the music and lyrical styles of her musical idols and charged headfirst into writing her own songs.
Her debut album, “Heaven, Hell, Sin & Redemption,” is a wonderful collection of character-driven songs – a restless single mother, a minister involved in a sex scandal, and a true story of a Death Row prisoner in Ohio.
Despite some of the tough subjects explored, this is no downer of an album. The music – mostly guitar, bass, keyboards backed with pedal steel and fiddle flourishes – is catchy and emotion-filled. Like Griffin and Edwards, Marybeth fleshes out her characters, allowing the listener to sympathize, if not empathize, with their fate.
“Every Week,” about a guy who visits a prostitute, is honest and nonjudgmental; the dire song “Ohio,” about a Death Row inmate, is based on a letter an Englishman imprisoned for arson and murder in America sent to the BBC: “There was a fire and a young girl died in Ohio/ I said I wasn’t there, but they don’t care in Ohio/ I’ve been sitting here for 20 years in Ohio.”
Marybeth didn’t start writing and performing her own songs until 2002, after losing her full-time job as a journalist. In fact, maybe it’s the journalist’s eye that catches the essence of her subjects’ struggles so clearly.
Marybeth has proven that her stories deserve to be heard.

RED SAMMY – Dog Hang Low Out now
Adam Trice, leader for Red Sammy, calls his band’s music “graveyard country rock” for its gritty and stark storytelling. And from the first cut, “(Shine) Like an Empty Prison,” well, you get the idea from the song title alone.
Hailing from Baltimore, home of Edward Allan Poe they remind proudly, Red Sammy is Trice on guitars and vocals, Josh Weiss on guitars, Theron Melchior on bass, and Tony Calato on drums.
Trice’s vocals come through in a growly hush, like Tom Waits or Leonard Cohen, in front of a layer of chiming guitars and steady drum beats. A banjo on “Empy Prison” and pedal steel and musical saw on “Cathedral” add texture. The moods are mostly dark and intimate, as the lyrics consistently mine “the daily struggles – work, love and loss – all of us face,” says Trice.
In the end, individually the songs on “Dog Hang Low” are compelling; but as an album, with literally no glimmers of hope or upbeat messages, it’s hard – even for someone who appreciates downbeat tunes – to get too excited about.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

CD Reviews: Jenny Lewis, Mark Erelli, the Sacred Shakers, Catie Curtis

JENNY LEWIS – “Acid Tongue’’
For those eagerly awaiting the sequel to “Rabbit Fur Coat,’’ Jenny Lewis’ critically acclaimed 2006 twangy solo album with the Watson Twins, “Acid Tongue’’ might not completely do it for you. Her new release, while having tinges of her country side, is just as much related to her rocking Rilo Kiley side.
No matter what you think of the new album, you have to admit two things: 1) She’s got one of the sweetest voices, country or rock; and 2) She’s not resting on any laurels from her past.
Lewis takes this album many directions: opener “Black Sand” harkens back to the acoustic “Rabbit Fur Coat.’’ But soon she’s blowing you way with the almost 9-minute, multi-part “The Next Messiah,’’ which hits you with electric guitar (even a little Beatles-esque “For You Blue’’ riff) to a country stomp then back again. “Bad Man’s World” is a tasty, slinky ride augmented with cello and violin.
Guests on the album are many: Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes joins Lewis for some sweet harmony on the title cut. Others who appear are longtime friend M. Ward (on “Pretty Bird”) and Zooey Deschanel (on “Trying My Best to Love You” and “Jack Killed Mom”), and the ever-present Elvis Costello, adding some toughness to the sturdy, country rocker “Carpetbaggers.”
Mood swings are frequent on “Acid Tongue,” but the constant is Lewis’ voice, which is equally triumphant cooing in “Godspeed’’ and rocking it hard on “See Fernando.’’
“Jack Killed Mom,’’ about a typical Jenny sinner/outcast, is one of the most fun songs on the album, with a big sing-along chorus that eerily plays against the songs lyrics.

MARK ERELLI – “Delivered”
Mark Erelli has built a steady and sturdy reputation as both a songwriter and guitarist (he backed Lori McKenna on her recent major-label tour). On “Delivered,’’ he continues to grow his own sound. His songs continue to be passionate looks at the world around him. Album opener “Hope Dies Last” sound dire in its lyrics: “Another suicide bomb at a market in the Middle East/the authorities estimate 28 dead at least.’’ But he ends each chorus, “But all that comes to pass/
hope dies last.’’ On “Volunteers,’’ Mark tells the story of a National Guardsman who sees his life and his job change after 9/11, and how he reconciles it. It’s an antiwar song, but not from the typical angle.
Mark has also added more diversity to the sound of his folk songs. “Shadowland” is a flat-out rocker, with heavy electric guitar lines. “Unraveled” brings harmonica and a Dylan-esque vocal. “Abraham’’ has a Josh Ritter-ish sound, with its organ intro and its introspective lyrics. If you hear it as well, it may be because Zack Hickman, bassist for Josh, produced the album and many of the musicians, including drummer Liam Hurley, pianist Sam Kassirer and guitarist Austin Nevins, provide the solid backing to Mark’s tunes.

THE SACRED SHAKERS – “The Sacred Shakers”
For those familiar with Eilen Jewell and her band (and if you’re not, you should be), you will recognize most of this band if not the sound. That’s because Jewell and band plus a few more of Boston’s best ramblers strip down and dress up traditional gospel tunes in the fun and funky country twang of banjo, fiddle, and upright bass. Each song has its own unique sound as lead vocals gets passed around like a good jug of moonshine. Songs such as “Jordan Is a Hard Road to Travel’’ and “Straighten ’Em” make you want to cry out “Halleluyah!”

CATIE CURTIS – “Sweet Life”
Catie Curtis must be in a pretty good place right now. We know Curtis best for her song “Do Unto Others,’’ about a mentally abusive relationship. So this album is quite an uplifting turn. Listening to “Sweet Life,” with such songs titles as “Happy,” “Everything Wanting to Grow,’’ “Lovely” and “Sing,” well, you just somehow get the feeling life is on the upswing for her. The tunes, too, are upbeat – acoustic guitars and soaring organ – even when the lyrics might delve into tougher themes. In a time when many folk singers are mining darker corners of their mind, Catie’s album is a breath of fresh air.