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.

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