Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Gaslight Anthem "Sink or Swim" (2007)

In 2007 the Gaslight Anthem seemed to leap out fullblown on their first album.  Their mix of Springsteen by way of the Clash & Social Distortion primed for the 21st century.  Frequently compared to The Hold Steady, TGA share their sincerity & their seeming belief in the power of rock to liberate.  "Sink or Swim" isn't quite as complete as their followup album, but it's still a powerful statement. 

William Elliott Whitmore "Field Songs" (2011)

This is an odd record.  I've been listening to it for some months now, & I really enjoy it.  But until I hear the songs, none of them really jump out at me.  And I can't honestly say that it's very different from any of his other records.  But when I DO listen, I love it.

Bruce Springsteen "The River" (1980)

This is where Springsteen starts to lose the plot.  Or at least for half the album.  If this were split into two albums, one could be a precursor to "Nebraska", while the other would be the precursor to "Born in the USA".  The "Nebraska" style material is still top notch.  The rest... well, let's just say that it's interesting how those songs seemed to create a template for mediocre 80s rock.  We have big big big drum sounds and cloying keyboard fills.  Lyrically he shifts from small narratives into anthemic material.  It's worth it for the better material, but some of this is just hard to listen to.

Tom Waits "Bone Machine" (1992)

"Bone Machine" marks the beginning of the third phase of Tom Waits' recordings.  Gone is the peyote fueled carnival barker, replaced by a demonic crooner who sings and chants and tells stories amid distortion, clang, and mayhem.  The songs themselves aren't as strong as those before, and for the most part not as strong as those that will come later.  But there are more than enough exciting moments to make this worth your time.

Leonard Cohen "Songs of Leonard Cohen" (1968)

This album feels strangely ahistorical, unconnected to anything before, or much since.  It's a powerful statement about love and addiction and longing and suffering.  A meditation on the human condition.  It seems almost a waste to allow it to be heard by the young or the fragile.  It should be locked away or hidden like some fabled grimoire. 

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Danny Schmidt "Parables & Primes" (2005)

Danny Schmidt draws from the same well as Townes Van Zandt.  At least Townes' gentler side.  "Parables & Primes" is comprised of beautiful fingerpicking & gorgeous lyrics.  It's a real shame that he is not more widely known.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Bruce Springsteen "Nebraska" (1982)

If Springsteen's earlier albums reflect the adolescence of the American Dream, "Nebraska" reflects its middle age.  The frustration is still there, but no longer is there a sense that getting out of town will solve the problems of the narrator.  The problems are bigger than that.  Most of the time they're tragic, in the Greek sense, in that they stem from the narrator's sense of identity.

William Elliott Whitmore "Song of the Blackbird" (2006)

When I was a kid I wondered why the old folks talked so much about the weather.  I mean, what was there to say most of the time?  And why did they care so much?  Eventually I realized that it had to do with farming.  That even the ones who weren't farmers had grown up on farms, & they still had that (rightful) obsession with the weather.

WEW is just as concerned with farmers' themes as those old folks.  Water, whether too much or too little, death, rebirth, the cycle of life.  These themes show up again & again on his records.  It's not enough to be strong to survive.  You have to remember that you are strong. WEW is reminding us that we are indeed strong enough to get through these hard times.

Two Man Gentlemen Band "Great Calamities" (2006)

This may be the perkiest, happiest collection of songs about disaster & misfortune that I've ever had the pleasure to listen to.  Rather than focus on fiddle tunes, or sad songs about mother, TMGB are more interested in hokum & novelty songs.  The "Great Calamities" that the title refers to include the Hindenburg disaster, the Titanic, & the Civil War. 

Martha Tilston "Real" (2010)

This live album is Tilston's most confident yet.  The material seems to span the last few years of her career, selecting highlights from her albums.  There's a beautiful intimate sound to the recording.  Well sung & well played.  Recommended.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

David Davis & The Warrior River Boys "Two Dimes & A Nickel" (209)

One of the hardest things for a neotraditional bluegrass band to do is to perform material that is true to the bluegrass format, yet not sound dated.  So much of the first generation's songbook clearly no longer relates to even the parents of the audience.  When has anyone lived in a little cabin?  Or ridden a train? 

The song selection here is firmly within the bounds of traditional bluegrass, yet most of it could be directly addressing issues faced by audience members in the 21st century.  So many of the problems of the early 20th century stay with us -- finances, love, absent family members. 

Otis Taylor "Pentatonic Wars & Love Songs" (2009)

If you ever wonder about the critical marginalization of the blues, think about the critical reception of records like this, or the lack of critical reception.  Ignoring the dominance of the Blues Hammer acts that overran the blues scene some years ago, Taylor is creating challenging records that are clearly within the tradition.  Sure, this album contains elements of soul & jazz, but it's still a blues record. 

Why is this type of album ignored?  The blues audience seems to have settled into two camps:  backwards looking traditionalists, & refugees from 70s rock who are looking for the next Stevie Ray Vaughn.  Critics can safely ignore albums that speak to either camp, since both are really not much more than tribute acts.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Steve Goodman "Live Wire" (2000)

I can't help but think about John Prine whenever I hear Steve Goodman.   I suppose it's a bit unfair to Goodman, & based on the music alone, it doesn't make much sense.  I know that when I first got this album I was a bit disappointed, because it doesn't really sound much like Prine, or like a folk record.  Goodman's music is really more similar to Randy Newman, or other 70s singer-songwriters.  Still, Goodman's songs are excellent.

Spring Creek "Way Up On A Mountain" (2009)

There's something that I love about Colorado bluegrass bands.  They are informed by the tradition, but not too tightly bound by it.  Perhaps its just the strong influence of the Hot Rize guys, but there's a playful approach to the genre. 

Spring Creek is a wonderful neo-traditional band.  They incorporate some elements of Western Swing, but still stay true to the roots of bluegrass, without feeling constrained by them.  Highly recommended.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Peter Holsapple & Chris Stamey "Here & Now" (2009)

Once upon a time, pop charts were filled with wonderful nuggets of guitar based songs.  At some point, the guitar pop songs got pushed to the margins.   Every ten years or so there's a little bubble of interest, but mainly it's a sideline, a subspecies of indie rock.

Peter Holsapple & Chris Stamey were pretty big deals in the 80s, at least in the south, where they were on the same level as REM.  I don't know the full story, but they got left behind while REM went on to headline arena shows around the world.

This album finds Holsapple & Stamey getting back together again & recording some wonderful pop songs.  While the record is a bit uneven, the high points are wonderful.  It's sad that it was so overlooked.

John Doe "Country Club" (2009)

John Doe's always shown a love for the Bakersfield sound.  Finally he teams up with the Sadies (are they the new Calexico -- the cool indie house band?) for a full on love letter to the sound.  The bad news is that this release is primarily covers.  The good news is that it is great.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Bruce Springsteen "Born to Run" (1975)

When I was in High School, in the early 80s, you had two choices of radio stations.  One was a pop channel, with lite rock & dance friendly songs (with the occasional cross over act like Michael Jackson). The other was the "rock" station, it's format being what we would now refer to as "classic rock".  I suppose that it was actually the tail end of the prime period of that format's original version, when the songs we're still hearing today were still more or less new.

I didn't own any Springsteen records, but I knew a lot of the songs from the radio.  I remember having a strange relationship to the material.  There was a certain urbanity & ethnicity to the music that was strange & offputting.  But I could certainly relate to many of the continuing themes of the music...young kids looking for kicks, yearning to leave their deadend towns.

Years later I learned to appreciate some of the structural nuances of Springsteen's work, his mastery of language & the way he fused disparate elements of early rock & soul.  The lyrical vignettes he wrote may perhaps be some of the best writing documenting young people in a certain time.  But I can still remember how it felt to be trapped in that small town, & dreaming of a day when I could run free.

Bishop Allen "Grrr" (2009)

It's almost like I'm listening to a generic record.  Perhaps the album cover should just say "Album" by "Indie Rock Band", as it's perfectly middle of the road for the first decade of the 21st century.  Short punchy songs, valuing rhythm over melody. Upbeat, but not aggressively so.  There's no feeling of risk here, so nothing can be that bad, but also nothing is that great.

Martha Tilston "Lucy & the Wolves" (2010)

Tilston moves into Joni Mitchell mode, with what at least feels like confessional songwriting.  The focus is on love & friendship.  It's highly effective, & her best record so far.

The Ettes "Wicked Will" (2011)

Thinking about why I have all these Ettes albums, & it's because they are so close.... The basic sound is so similar on each of their albums, fuzzy guitar riffs, snarled female vocals.... I really dig the sound.  I think that they are only a few great songs away from an incredible album.  And so I keep hoping that the next album is going to be the one to deliver that awesome garagey goodness.....

Eli "Paperboy" Reed "Come and Get It" (2010)

When I think about classic soul, & the ocean of that material, there are a couple things that separate the great from the good.  First, the songs themselves -- there some incredible songwriters working at the time, and their craft shows.  Second, the singers.  The genre depends so much on unique vocal stylists (and harmonists) that the exceptional singers do really stand out.

(Strangely enough, I've realized that the musicians were so universally great, that they tend to be a wash.  There must have been thousands of top notch R&B musicians playing all over the country in the 60s & early 70s -- even the most obscure tracks on compilations seem to have rediculously tight bands.)

Unfortunately Eli "Paperboy" Reed seems to have neither exceptional material nor an exceptional voice.  All this material is well done, but no better than the obscure nonhits included in crate digger oriented compilations.  When you're competing with the top names from Stax, Motown, etc, you really have to be exceptional.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Ettes "Do You Want Power" (2009)

"Do You Want Power" sees the Ettes expanding their palette.  This does make for a more enjoyable listening experience.  Unfortunately at times they veer into an 80s power rock sound that may be foreshadowed by the font on the album's cover.  Still, not much to say here... it's one of those records that makes me shrug.

Eli "Paperboy" Reed "Roll With You" (2008)

The last decade has seen a surge in soul revivalists.  Eli "Paperboy" Reed's music is a throwback to classic Stax records from the 60s.  Objectively, his voice can be a bit weak by those standards.  I'm not sure that Reed would've been allowed to record back in Stax's hayday.  But as a whole the album really works.  The tempos are varied, & the production is just lowfi enough to simulate the sound of the 60s.  Highly entertaining.

M. Ward "The Transfiguration of Vincent" (2003)

In 2003, M Ward was already tuned in to the mystical.  We can see simply from the title of this album, "transfiguration" referring to Catholic believe in the mystical change in Christ, and "Vincent" being so evocative of Vincent Van Gogh, whose work implies the luminous nature of the divine.

As you might expect from an early work, this is not as fully formed as Ward's later albums, but the pieces are all in place.  Pop influenced folk songs (or is it folk influenced pop songs?) seem to filter in from some other place.

Martha Tilston "Bimbling" (2005)

It's funny what a difference context makes.  I had been listening to this as a British Folk record and was surprised at how it didn't meet my expectations.  Suddenly I realized that it was more of a singer songwriter album.  In that context, Bimbling holds up well.  The influences are not as traditional as I had expected (or, in all honesty, desired).  Its contemporary nature seems to have removed it from a sense of place. 

Alasdair Roberts "Too Long In This Condition" (2010)

As I slowly work my way through the Alasdair Roberts discography, I'm struck by his consistency.  There's not a lot of experimentation, it's as if early on he realized what he wanted, and what he could do, and stuck inside that sweet spot.  But given his consistency, it becomes an even bigger mystery to me that he is not better known. 

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Martha Tilston "Ropeswing" (2005)

This album is just so.... tasteful.  I feel like I should be hanging out in a coffee shop while this plays softly in the background.  I don't mean to say that there's anything wrong with the record, it's well constructed.  It's just that there's nothing that draws me in.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Alasdair Roberts "Spoils" (2009)

While still working within the folk tradition, this release sees Roberts flirting more overtly with indie rock song arrangements & instrumentation.  The drum swells, for example, sound more like what you would hear on an indie rock songwriter's album than on a folk record.  The quality of both the songs and the performance is still high.  

Sunday, January 1, 2012

M. Ward "Hold Time" (2009)

It's difficult for me to think about this record without thinking about spirituality.  Not in a "Jesus come save me sense", but in a transcendentalist sense of cosmic awareness.  Not many songwriters are working in the rock tradition that seem open to that sense of spirituality, it's something I would associate more with post-Coltrane jazz players.  But the reverb & distortion somehow only add to that quality, as if the music is heard quietly through the veil, as it emmanates from another plane of existence.

Laura Cantrell "Kitty Wells Dresses" (2011)

As the hierarchy of country music stars is reconfigured through modern hipster lenses, Kitty Wells seems to have been forgotten.  She came along too late for the prewar fetishists, & too early for the purely kitsch loving nostagists.   Laura Cantrell, a dj & country music historian, seeks to rectify the situation. 

With the exception of the title track, this is a collection of covers of Kitty Wells songs.  Less a modern "tribute" album, it harkens back to the country tradition of a younger singer recording songs made famous by an earlier performer  (ever look through old country LPs & notice all the ones called " [insert performers name] Sings Hank Williams"?).