Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Tom Waits "The Black Rider" (1993)

As the album opens, Waits suddenly appears as a twisted, scary carnival barker.  Is this the first time he's played this persona?  It feels so natural... of course he's a carnival barker!

Written in part with William Burroughs, this is the music for a stage production, so there is as much emphasis on the incidental music as the "songs" per se. 

While the stage production apparently lasts for 3 hours, this album is a modest 55 minutes. 

It's certainly interesting from a fan's standpoint, but a minor work compared to most of Wait's catalog.

Six Organs of Admittance "For Octavio Paz" (2003)

The clues are right in front of you.  The band's name clearly signifying spiritual quest, the album's title a nod to artistic aspirations.  For a relatively short album (under 50 minutes), we are moved along a path to transcendence, via acoustic guitar.  The playing is of the post -Fahey variety -- emphasis on drones, and fingerwork.  But very very impressive.

Peasant "On The Ground" (2009)

At first listen, this feels like a game of spot the influence.  Oh, here's the Simon & Garfunkle part!  Here's the Byrds!  Here's Elliott Smith!  But once the songs are taken on their own merit, it's obvious that this modest record contains some real gems of folk pop. 

Leonard Cohen "Songs From a Room" (1969)

You don't think of idolized music figures suffering from something so mundane as the sophomore slump.  But clearly it hit Leonard Cohen.  It's not that this is a bad album -- the high spots are just as good as anything on his debut.  But the consistency is not there.  There are several tracks that just aren't in the same ballpark as his best material.  Still, Cohen's off days are still more ambitious & interesting than the best that most have to offer.

Rosie Thomas "When We Were Small" (2002)

An intimate collection of songs of love & loss.  While the songwriting is in the confessional folk vein, the instrumentation is perhaps surprisingly piano based.  A quite lovely little album.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Emmy The Great "First Love" (2009)

It's funny how the poles of genre classification shift.  As rock has become less traditional in its structure, the thinking of what is "folk" has changed in response.  This record, to my ears, is a rock record.  Sure, it's full of seemingly confessional songs.  Sure there are acoustic guitars.  But the structure & the sonics of the record sound more like a rock record than anything I think of as folk.

Given the nature of the project itself, clearly I'm not the best audience.  I'm not a young woman, & I think that Emmy's songs would resonate much more strongly with someone who can empathize with her.

The Two Man Gentlemen Band "Drip Dryin With the Two Man Gentlemen Band" (2011)

The formula here is much the same as the earlier releases.  Sure, there are a few sonic differences -- some percussion, some horns, but overall it's much the same as the rest.  Unfortunately, I don't seem to like the songs nearly as much.  The jokes just fall flat on me, and there's not much else to keep my interest.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Two Man Gentlemen Band "self-titled" (2005)

The aesthetic is already in place, but the pieces aren't all there yet.  There's not the reliance on double entendres, and some songs aren't so humorous.   Overall, it's hit or miss, but the high points ("Shotgun Wedding", for example) are as good as the later material.

Tom Waits "Swordfishtrombones" (1983)

....and... BAM!  Tom Waits suddenly swerves from piano songwriter into the sonic weirdness that people think of as TOM WAITS!  Suddenly the beatnick translations of the American songbook are gone, replaced by odd time signatures, soundscapes, and strange little stories and character pieces. 

Rosie Thomas "Only With Laughter Can You Win" (2003)

From the opening multitracked vocals, you can tell this is a much slicker proposition than "These Friends".  The vibe here is closer to mid 70s AOR.  It's not that it's bad, it just lacks the intimate charm of "These Friends".

Christian Kiefer & Sharon Kraus "The Black Dove" (2006)

It seems like the phrases "indie folk" or "alternative folk" are thrown about quite often in the last few years.  "The Black Dove" is a great example of what (I think) those people are talking about.  It's a concept record.  At its core there are beds of ambient sound & deconstructed folk songs.  From this bed, traditional material emerges.  Kiefer seems to be responsible for the more modern sounds, while Kraus handles the traditional.  Despite its conceptual underpinings, it seems to be quite uneven to my ears.  Kraus' traditional material works, but I'm not so sure about the rest.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Ramblin Jack Elliott "A Stranger Here" (2009)

Was the 60s folk scare the squarest time in pop music?  It was certainly in the running.... It's interesting to me how eventually even performers tainted with that association can eventually be repackaged as the Other, & thus eventually "cooled".

In light of that, it's interesting that the album cover doesn't actually show Elliott's face.  Why is that?  Was there the fear that he would look too much like (the buyer's) grandfather?

This late career effort sees Ramblin Jack's voice in decline.  It's thin now, the voice of an old man.  But this is still a very nice set of primarily blues covers.  There's quite a bit of diversity in the arrangements, which makes for a good listen.

Two Man Gentlemen Band "Heavy Petting" (2007)

I have a certain guilty weakness for wacky double entendre songs... so I like this quite a bit.  The hokum material forms the backbone of this album, with a few other jazz age songs thrown in for good measure.

Rainy Day "Rainy Day" (1984)

Back when I was in college in the 80s, it was dicey to buy contemporary releases.  There was no easy source of reviews on most things, distribution was odd, so even if you heard of something you wanted you may not have been able to find it.  Very often "new" purchases would be a crapshoot based on album cover information or something similar.  Since we all had very limited funds for purchasing music, we often ended up buying old $1 vinyl.  It was usually from the 60s or early 70s. 

One of the revelations of discovering the "Paisley Underground" bands was the sense that they had that same sort of record collections.  That mixed in with their Clash, Ramones, et al, were the Byrds, Neil Young, and other 60s bands that did not receive much love in the 80s.

The forgotten psychedelic records from the past were just as oppositional to Reagan era society as the Clash or the Sex Pistols. 

When I listen to this record I'm a bit surprised at how good it still sounds.  Sure, some of the vocals are a bit dodgy, but there's none of the annoying 80s sounds that you might expect.  It's a real tragedy that this is a forgotten record.

Rosie Thomas "These Friends of Mine" (2007)

This is an underapreciated indie folk gem.  A quiet, intimate album of songs about friendship & love.  Sufjan Stevens sits in on several tracks, & seemingly was contributed to the arrangement of some others.  Quite charming.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Gaslight Anthem "American Slang" (2010)

This is in most ways more of the same -- Springsteen filtered through Social Distortion.  The songs that speak to me are the ones that seem to have the most Clash influence, slightly funky or reggae derived basslines underpinning their spines.

Bruce Springsteen "Working On A Dream" (2009)

This raises an odd question for me:  how can one song be so great, while the rest of the album is terrible?  "The Wrestler" has to be one of the best Springsteen songs of the last 25 years.  An intimate look at someone down on their luck.  But the rest of this record is only marginally listenable.  How does that happen?  Clearly he's talented, & has the ability to release top notch material.  Is there no quality control?  Is the impetus for yet another release so great that he'd rather release dreck than to hold to higher quality standards?