Friday, November 21, 2008

CD REVIEW: The Soulsavers' "It's Not How Far You Fall, It's the Way You Land"

Label: V2 Records

Mark Lanegan has participated in several musical projects over the years. He is remembered by most as the lead vocalist of the Screaming Trees, arguably the greatest early 90s grunge band that received no radio attention. In recent years, he has worked the Queens of the Stone Age and recorded an excellent duet record with former Belle and Sebastian vocalist Isobel Campbell. And, even though it has been completely ignored by mainstream radio, his phenomenal solo career speaks for itself. Solid album after solid album, Lanegan and his whiskey-and-cigarette vocals always seem to deliver.

Naturally, I was excited to hear that Lanegan was gracing us with his musical presence again. This time, he teams with British “electronic soul” band the Soulsavers, lending his quiet-yet-thunderous vocals to 8 of the 11 tracks on the group’s sophomore release, It’s Not How Far You Fall, It’s the Way You Land. The results are wonderful. It’s the most eclectic project of which Lanegan has ever taken part. It also just might be the darkest. This is no party album. This record is all about death, loneliness, hopelessness, sin, and a little redemption. And the band made the perfect choice in recruiting Lanegan. His songwriting (Lanegan co-wrote five of the songs) and vocals are ideal for the mood the band wanted to create for the record. It’s a sonic marriage made in heaven… or perhaps in hell. And as one listens to It’s Not How Far You Fall, it’s apparent that’s just what the Soulsavers wanted.

It’s impossible to categorize the sound of this Soulsavers’ album. Stylistically, it’s all over the board. Sometimes, it’s old school gospel. Other times, it’s hip-hop. You get a little bit of rock and roll and a lot of soul. And it’s all set to an electronic background. Lanegan fans will find it closest in style to his most recent solo album, Bubblegum. But it’s much darker, and it works. Borrowing a term from Black Sabbath, perhaps the greatest way to describe this album’s sound is like an “electric funeral.” Powered by dark guitar and lots of piano and organ, It’s Not How Far You Fall is desolate from start to finish. Its characters are desperate, heartbroken, and hopeless… and death seems to loom around every corner.

The “fun” begins right away with the album’s most memorable track, “Revival.” On first listen, the song may seem like any other religious hymn… complete with choir-like female backing vocals and an organ playing in the background. Upon closer inspection, however, this is no song of religious celebration. It sounds like someone is dying, and by the time Lanegan begins the final verse solo, the desperation is obvious. The same death and loneliness surrounds the hip-hop oriented “Ghosts of You and Me.” It’s the closest Lanegan has ever come to rapping, and thanks to the Soulsavers’ excellent electronic support, it’s fantastic. Eat your heart out, Linkin Park. Madness overtakes on “Paper Money,” as its Devil-possessed individual stalks a woman he wishes to love. It’s dark lust at its best. And as the record progresses, its characters hopes seem to progress towards the grave. When Lanegan sings, “Jesus, I don’t want to die alone,” in an excellent version of the hymn “Spiritual,” thanks to his creakiest vocals and sparse instrumentation, it sounds like he’s already dead. The madness returns in “Jesus of Nothing,” which by the end, features three Lanegan vocal tracks playing at the same time as he talks of losing his mind now that his “trial is nearly over.” Great touch by the Soulsavers… it duplicates the feeling of insanity well! And finally, an older Lanegan poetic masterpiece about dying love (and perhaps, a dying lover), “Kingdom of Rain,” is revived for this album. It not only fits in perfectly on It’s Not How Far You Fall, but it completely outshines the original version. Throw in a couple of great instrumentals (especially the beautifully written “Arizona Bay”) and two well-chosen covers (a duet with Will Oldham on Neil Young’s “Through My Sails” and an extremely bleak version of the Rolling Stones’ “No Expectations”) and you have a grim little masterpiece on your hands.

While the record has been available “across the pond” since this spring, it will not be released in the US until October 16th. This is great news, of course, for those who appreciate the Soulsavers’ excellent brand of electronic music. Unfortunately, it will likely fall on deaf ears. After all, mainstream radio even ignored Mark Lanegan’s excellent music with the Screaming Trees when grunge was en vogue! Do yourself a favor: if you are a Lanegan fan… don’t let this release go unnoticed, as the Soulsavers just might have brought out the best in him. It’s Not How Far You Fall, It’s the Way You Land may not be the next big thing with the kiddies, and it’s definitely not going to get any parties started, but it just may be the best sparse, dark album since Johnny Cash’s original American Recordings.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

CD REVIEW: Dollar Store's "Money Music"

Label: Bloodshot Records

While traveling to my hometown a few days ago, I wandered into a truck stop, and it was an interesting environment to behold. Inside were a few truckers stopping for a quick cup coffee to keep them awake on their endless highway trip. Even though I’ve always envied their freedom, I pity their loneliness. Seems as though it’d be a one-way ticked to insanity.

Inside this truck stop was also a place to grab a bite to eat. And when you hear people use the term “greasy spoon,” this is exactly what they’re talking about. Served up 24 hours: grease with a side of food. About 15 people or so were there, all work-beaten, blue-collar folks. As I looked at them, I saw pain and hopelessness tattooed into their sunburnt faces. It was almost a perfect Southern Gothic scene… except for the music playing on the radio station. The mainstream country didn’t quite represent what I was seeing. One guy singing about sipping margaritas in Mexico. Another complaining about going to the dentist office. Yet another talking about MySpace profiles. Oh, and “Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy.” One look at these people told me that even the most painful trip to the dentist was like a mosquito bite compared to what they go through on a daily basis, and there was NO way that they spent time browsing MySpace… if they even knew what it was. “This isn’t right,” I thought. “This music is not the working man’s music in any way.”

Fast forward to today, as I break out Dollar Store’s newest album Money Music. I had never heard of the band before, but as soon as I hit “Play” and the loud guitar of the title track fired up, I knew I was in for a treat. By the time I had finished, I had realized something else about this relatively unknown rock outfit: they were making the music that should have been played at that truck stop. And at factories across this country. Simply put, this album is blue-collar America: both musically and lyrically.

The first thing listeners will notice about Money Music is that Dollar Store is one tight band. And why not? All four members have a long history of playing in great live bands. Lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist Deano Schlabowske and bassist Alan Doughty made their reputations as part of the roadhouse band The Waco Brothers. Drummer Joe Camirillo broke in with the Hushdrops, while lead guitarist Tex Schmidt was a member of the German rockabilly punk band The Roughnecks. Together, they have created an album that dabbles in blues, country, classic rock, and even a little punk. In other words, this is a roots rock record in the truest sense of the word. A great mix of the glory years of The Rolling Stones, the dark, sinister edge of Black Sabbath, and the dark working man tales of Merle Haggard, Money Music is a fascinating listen musically.

Even more intriguing is the portrait that Dollar Store paints with its songs. It’s certainly not a pretty sight. Almost thirty years ago, Bruce Springsteen released a masterpiece of an album called Darkness On The Edge Of Town. That album took place in the “Badlands,” where men “worked their whole lives for nothing but the pain.” Well, Money Music takes place there too, and it’s just as brutally honest as The Boss’ 1978 record. With the exception of “Scrap Truck” and “Hurricane Charley,” which are solid metaphorical pieces, Schlabowske’s lyrics are very direct and to the point… and his Dixie-via-Milwaukee worn, soulful vocals ensure that these lyrics are effective. The Chuck Berry-esque opening title track may be a fun little rock-and-roll romp, but after listening to the whole record, it’s easy to see that the song is merely a work of sarcasm. The rest of the album shows its listeners the dark side of the blue-collar world… a world where, as the band puts it in a bass-heavy drone, “work is its own reward.” Each song is its own tragic tale. In the fast-paced “Wasting Away,” a man writes home to his woman telling her the terrible truth about his new job in a factory town, and another man that says love and life has left him hopeless in the Stones-flavored “Twisting in the Wind.” Hopelessness can also be found in “One Red Cent, One Thin Dime,” in which a man laments that his friend’s big dreams will be in vain. After all, as the band says in the Schmidt-guitar heavy punk number, the whole world has become a “Company Town,” where even beer has become too expensive. Of course, there’s a little infidelity and murder too in the countryish “In the Gravel Yard,” and even a broken down, forgotten Nashville “Star” who is not looked upon kindly by the rest of the townsfolk. Yet, at least one factory worker refuses to sign away his pride, and 10% of his soul, in the bluesy “Reserve the Right.” And, in the album’s closer,” one man actually escapes this dark world and reflects upon his days “down in the catacombs with the skulls and bones” in “Dying Light.” Is it depressing? Sure, but Dollar Store gives listeners a brand new respect for the plight of the blue-collared crowd with each song on the record.

Still, even though the album is a reality that’s hard to swallow, Dollar Store’s upbeat classic rock and roll arrangements refuses to let it become a downer. Like the factory workers themselves, their music looks adversity straight in the eye and pushes forward. Despite the pain of the lifestyle, those who live it somehow make it through, and find a way to make their lives as enjoyable as possible. That is the beauty of this album. It’s survival, and it’s a winner in every way. Money Music may not be a cure for the working man’s blues, but it sure will give them… and folks of all walks of life… a reason to rock.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

CD REVIEW: Danbert Nobacon's "The Library Book of the World"

Label: Bloodshot Records

Chumbawamba? The one-hit wonders from 1997? Yeah, I remember them. Kinda. Which is cool, because I am sure a lot of people do not.

Recently, I came across the name Chumbawamba once again when I received a copy of Danbert Nobacon’s album The Library Book of the World. It is the first solo album for Nobacon, the band’s lead vocalist and keyboardist, in two decades. It is also one of the most peculiar albums that I have heard in a long time. Featuring ode after ode to the political extreme left and supported musically by a… country band, Nobacon’s album is perhaps the greatest acquired taste LP in recent history.

After doing some research, I discovered that Nobacon has been an anarchist for some time, and that he and the rest of Chumbawamba had used popular music as a way to spread their anti-establishment messages to the world for years. Who would have known that from listening to “Tubthumper”? After the members of the group went their separate ways, Nobacon has continued to use music as his political forum, and The Library Book of the World is no exception. As a political moderate, I can respect views that come from the far left. So, I pulled out my “Bush is Not MY President” hat out of the closet and hoped for a great album of liberal tunes. I at least hoped for something better musical than Neil Young’s Living With War album anyway.

So was it? Well, somewhat. Nobacon’s album has two major flaws, the first being predictability. Being a recent college graduate and have listened to the lectures of several liberal sociology professors, I had a feeling I knew what he’d be discussing on the album. And sure enough, it’s all there. Nobacon hates the war, corporations, and imperialism, is not the biggest fan of religion, and is extremely upset about the way we’re treating the environment. In fact, we learn all of this in the first track on the album, “The Last Drop in the Glass.” While there should have been a “liberal overload” warning next to that first track in the album liner notes, sometimes, this predictability is not a bad thing. After all, people who know Nobacon’s politics and choose to buy the record are going to expect him to talk about these topics. When he chose to concentrate on one of his political concerns per song, and didn’t let himself become TOO preachy, things turned out pretty well. For instance, “Rock ‘N Roll Holy Wars” is a great, witty criticism of the role of organized religion in world conflicts, and “Wasps in November” is an outstanding, poetic take on global warming. On a couple of occasions, Nobacon uses his great wise-ass sense of humor to tackle such issues as computer addiction (“What Was That?”) and the horrible state of popular music and the people who listen to it (“Christopher Marlowe”). Great stuff, as is “Straight Talk (Meet Frank),” simply a wonderful little bouncy rock song. The second flaw though is that more often than not, Nobacon uses a far more direct lyrical approach to make his points. When he goes direct, the songs become far less clever, and therefore less effective. Unfortunately, this is case for at least half of Library Book, and it makes it much less appealing for music fans outside the extreme far left political spectrum.

And yet, even though Danbert Nobacon will not remind anyone of John Lennon as a lyricist for half of the record, Library Book is still a fascinating, albeit quirky, little listen. What is its saving grace? The music! Throughout the album, Jon Langford and his country-based band The Pine Valley Cosmonauts back up Nobacon wonderfully. Country music and anarchist politics? Sounds like quite an odd couple, doesn’t it? It makes more sense than one would think though because the more traditional country music made outside of the mainstream is far more liberal than “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue.” And what a great little traditional country band the Cosmonauts are! Steel guitar, fiddles, mandolins, honky tonk piano… you’ll hear all of these old-school sounds on Library Book, and they sound wonderful throughout the record. While the songs in a lyrical sense are hit or miss, the strange marriage between the band and Nobacon’s angst-filled vocals is successful for the majority of the album.

Acquired taste? Ohh yeah, this record is an acquired taste all right. If you hate politics with your music, this is definitely not for you. In fact, avoid it at all costs. And if you hate country music, this album shouldn’t be on your wish list either. Heck, even if you are a fan of Chumbawamba, there is a chance you might not like this disc. Aside from the punk-fused “Nixon is My Dentist,” none of these songs will likely be mistaken for a song made by Nobacon’s former band. But if you have an open mind about any of these issues, you just may want to check out The Library Book of the World. You may not necessarily like it all that much, but it just might be one of the most memorable musical listening experiences you’ll have this year… for better or worse.

Monday, September 08, 2008

CD REVIEW: DeAnna Moore's "Escape"

Label: Self-Released

Remember that old saying “never judge a book by its cover?” It’s a valuable piece of advice that we’ve all heard at one point or another and yet, we all seem to do it occasionally. I am no exception. In fact, when I received Vermont songstress DeAnna Moore’s recent album Escape, I was all set to review the album before I even began listening. The cover art features an upclose photograph of the beautiful blue-eyed artist holding a guitar and her name is printed in romantic cursive writing. “Uh oh,” I thought to myself, “I have another generic romantic folk album on my hands.” However, as I started listening, I realized that I couldn’t have been more wrong. Moore’s appropriately-titled album is dark, brutal, and most importantly, honest… and if you’re willing to give it a close listen, it’ll capture your emotions from beginning to end.

The reason you have to give it a close listen? Well… it’s a folk album, and each song’s instrument arrangement is sparse. A few of the songs on Escape feature only Moore’s vocals and her acoustic guitar. Sometimes, the cello of John Dunlap is added, but only a couple of songs include further instrumentation. So, basically, if you’re looking for an album that is going to get you dancing, this isn’t it. But hey, this is a folk album, so that shouldn’t be expected anyway. And as long as you’re not multitasking and giving the album your full attention, there is plenty to enjoy about its music. Remember Jewel before she started enjoying the pop-life and her mediocre-at-best poetry book? You know, when she was singing songs like “Save Your Soul?” That’s what the album sounds like, and that’s a good thing. It’s completely appropriate for this type of album. Oh, and it doesn’t hurt that Moore possesses a gorgeous, siren-powerful voice that captures the attention of anyone who lends an ear either.

While the album’s folk-standard music is nice, it’s Moore’s words that make Escape such a wonderful record. This is no happy collection of flower-power songs. The album is a real heartbreaker. It paints a portrait of a woman who has been battered and beaten by love and life. Her world is covered by “Steel Blanket Skies” and memories and loves-gone-wrong haunt her each and every day. While some of these songs may be works of fiction, one can’t help but believe that each story is 100% autobiographical truth. Whether it’s the confession of the naïve woman in “Fragile,” the story of a girl whose lover’s heart is tied to a memory in “I’m Not Her,” or a lady’s desperate attempt to escape in the title track, a combination of Moore’s captivating vocals and her powerfully honest lyrics forces the hearts of listeners to reach out to the tortured soul crying out in song. From the madness of “Grief” to the unbelievably perfect thunderstorm-supported “Lullaby Reprise,” anyone who listens closely to Escape immediately becomes a part of Moore’s lonely world.

Ironically, however, the album’s greatest track is its only lighter number. “Old Fashioned Love,” Moore’s ode to her mother and father’s romance, is truly a lyrical masterpiece in the vein of River-Era Bruce Springsteen. The tale of how the free-spirited, motorcycle-riding Sophie wins the heart of the shy boy down the street, and the support of his mother, is beautiful beyond words. It rips at your heartstrings and by the time it’s over, it’ll have you believing in that Beatles number “All You Need Is Love” all over again.

So let this be another reminder to you all… never judge a book by its cover. And don’t pass by this album like I almost certainly would have. There is so much to love about DeAnna Moore’s Escape. This isn’t just a record for fans of folk music. This is an album for anyone who loves brutally honest music, and who has experienced the dark side of love… and the dark side of life.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

CD REVIEW: The Last Domino's "Seconds"

Label: Self-Released

Singer-songwriter, easy-listening folk rock. The sub-genre, popularized by such artists as Five For Fighting, that features songs about love and heartbreak supported by a sonic wall of pop guitar arrangements. People seem to either love it or hate it. For better AND worse, The Last Domino’s debut album, Seconds, falls into this musical category. At least most of the time. While the majority of its songs will please fans of this style of music and do nothing for those who hate it, there are a few numbers that show that The Last Domino has a little something extra on his Dashboard.

One thing that sets The Last Domino (AKA John Orr) apart from most is that he is a multi-instrumentalist, and aside from a few extra vocals on the record’s last track “The Last Joke You’ll Ever Play on Me,” he is responsible for every sound listeners will hear on Seconds. This is impressive because we’re not talking about just a guitar solo record. Guitar, bass, keyboard, alto sax, drums, and other percussion can all be heard at various points on the album. And after listening to Seconds, it’s easy to tell that Orr is accomplished at each of them. In fact, two of the album’s best tracks are instrumentals. The island funk that is “Summer Flame” and the saxophone-fueled “Autumn Twilight” are both welcomed additions to the record. He’s a good vocalist too, and between his voice and his musical arrangements, he shows on the album that he understands this style of music and how to create it effectively.

As said, most of the songs that are found on Seconds are exactly what you’d expect on an easy-listening folk rock record. The qualities of these songs range from subpar to very good. Only one song on the record, “Naïve,” with a droning chorus that is a real eye-roller, warrants skipping. The rest of the songs in this style should be completely listenable for fans of the sub-genre. “Washed Ashore” features a nice wavy musical arrangement that supports its high-tide heartbreak lyrics, and “Clean Break” is just a wonderfully written “love hurts” song with both great music and solid words built around the great metaphor of a broken bone. The best of these songs though is the title track. It breaks the usual subject matter of such songs, telling the tragic story of a troubled girl who is jailed and soon after, commits suicide. The song’s main character, her brother, hears her final words to him in his head and holds them in his heart. This number and others show that Orr can craft lyrical gems that those who appreciate an easy-listening style of music will undoubtedly appreciate.

However, perhaps the best songs on Seconds find The Last Domino breaking the boundaries of his sub-genre. Three of its tracks have broad-appeal that should please all kinds of music fans. “Born to Runner-Up” uses a sports metaphor to tell a musical tale of the eternal nice-guy loser. It’s a lot of fun, and goodness knows there are thousands of us nice guys out there who can relate. It may be about losing, but the song itself is a winner, as is “You Don’t Know the Half.” Songs don’t get much more clever than this story of a man with a split personality that murders his lover. Strangely upbeat, Orr even changes vocals for the man’s two personalities. Dark, yes, but the song is a blast… no pun intended. And finally, another dark-yet-lively song, “Last Call,” is the biggest highlight on the entire album. It’s a rollicking good time of a number about a man who drinks himself to death after losing his love, and has bar room “hit” written all over it. Thank goodness, as I think most of us have had enough of “Friends in Low Places.”

Are these three songs enough to make those who are not fans of singer-songwriter folk buy the album? Probably not. Most of the album is very sub-genre specific. However, there is a lot to like about The Last Domino. The guy can write, and the guy can play… and he can do both pretty well. It’ll be interesting to hear how his next album will sound. In the meantime, enjoy Seconds: a great easy-listening treat… with a little extra spunk!

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

CD REVIEW: Mark Huff's "Gravity"

Label: Exodus Records

“Smokin cigarette butts from a dirty ashtray.” Builds a mood right away, doesn’t it? Great songwriters who can pull off lines such as this usually have no trouble establishing mood not only in their songs, but also sometimes throughout entire albums. While I wouldn’t necessarily call it a concept album, Mark Huff’s Gravity is one of most interesting “love” albums I have heard in some time. Even though most of its songs deal with heartbreak, by giving its tunes a lyrical and musical hard, bar room bluesy edge, Huff delivers a record that never becomes too sappy… even for the tough guys. What is that you ask? A heartbreak album… for men? Hard to believe, but it’s true!

The music of Gravity is a big reason that the record is so successful. Huff’s vocals on the album resemble Ryan Adams’ at his smokiest. The music reminds listeners of Adams as well. This should be expected considering Huff enlisted musicians who have worked with Adams (Brad Pemberton on drums and Bucky Baxter on guitar) to help him record the album. Dan Baird, from Georgia Satellites fame, also lends his musical chops on bass to help complete the album’s outstanding sound.

It is difficult to label that sound though. With the exception of the wonderful “Wrong or Right”, the country influence that marks Ryan Adams’ work is largely missing from Huff’s Gravity. However, the record still seems to feel Southern-flavored, all while having the effective pop-sensibility of Matchbox Twenty, just with more guitar and attitude. Whiskey and Cigarette Pop perhaps? It really doesn’t matter how one describes it though because it works. Musically strong from start to finish, Huff’s album is a sonic treat for fans of all rock and country sub-genres.

Perhaps the greatest highlight of the Gravity experience is its lyrical content. It does not take long for listeners to realize that Mark Huff is a very able songwriter, as the album features an extremely strong first half. The opener, “Easy to Love You,” is a great pop number about a man struggling to love his ideal woman. Following are two great rock and roll blues songs, “In the Dark” and the superior “Digging a Hole.” The latter reminds listeners of a Mark Lanegan tune and features a wonderful central metaphor that will captivate any heartbroken soul. The excellence continues through the next three tracks. The title track is the kind of song that Rob Thomas hasn’t written in years, the ghostly “Talkin Insomnia Blues” takes listeners back to Laneganville, and “Sleep it Away” is a song to which anyone can relate. Who hasn’t wanted to sleep away a bad day… or week? Huff realizes this as a songwriter, and captures the feeling perfectly in words. While there is some dropoff in the second half of the record, there really is only one track (“Killing Me Slowly”) that could be considered filler. The remaining tracks are still solid listens, and two of them, the previously mentioned “Wrong or Right” and the lyrical masterpiece that is the tearjerker “Something That I Broke,” are outstanding.

The biggest question that arises about the album is why it took so long to release it. His previous album released almost a decade ago, we can only hope that we won’t have a similar wait before Huff graces us with his brand of “Whiskey and Cigarette Pop” again. However, besting this effort will not likely prove to be an easy task for him. Like the woman Mark Huff discusses in the opener, it truly is easy to love Gravity… and listeners don’t even have to “try like hell” to do it!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

CD REVIEW: Joe Buck's "Joe Buck Yourself"

Label: Self-Released

Despite an overall lack of major media coverage, a sonic storm named Shelton Williams, better known as Hank Williams III, has been sweeping the country now for ten years with his brand of traditional-country-mixed-with-punk-rock music he fondly refers to as “hellbilly.” Or, as his long-time bassist Joe Buck says in one of the songs on Joe Buck Yourself, his first official solo release, “hillbilly pride is going nationwide.”

Yet, one shouldn’t expect to hear Williams’ brand of “hellbilly” from a solo Joe Buck, who at one time was also a guitarist for The Legendary Shackshakers. The third-generation artist’s country sound, despite its recklessness and attitude, still mostly resembles the musical style of his grandfather. The sound of Joe Buck Yourself resembles, well, the fans that stand up front at Williams’ live shows. Not the strictly country crowd… they tend to hang towards the back of the place. He sounds like the hardcore fans who are itching throughout the entire country portion of the show to get the mosh pit going during Hank’s death metal second-half. Joe Buck’s music is dark, loud, and raw, and a constant sense of impending doom surrounds the entire record. Basically, this is the kind of music you’d expect to be on The Boogeyman’s iPod. After all, as Buck puts it in song, like every child’s legendary worst nightmare, he was “Born to Scare.” And like any great ghost story, it’s not only scary… it’s a damn good time!

Joe Buck establishes this reaper-like presence on Joe Buck Yourself in a couple of ways. The first way the multi-instrumentalist pulls it off is through the music itself. When he isn’t touring with Hank III, Buck hits the road solo as a one-man-band. It is appropriate, then, that most of the tracks on the record feature only a guitar and kick-drum. To those who don’t think such a stripped-down sound would create a very large musical impact, think again. This album is LOUD. Buck is pounds away on his guitar strings with a drummer’s force on each edgy, death-filled number, and the bass-drum beat seems to represent a soon-to-be victim’s increasingly loud heartbeat as the killer approaches. Add his creepy, creaky vocals to the mix and it becomes obvious to listeners that Joe Buck, like a great horror writer, knows how to build a mood in his work, and that he is certainly a solid musician with the ability to pull it off in superb fashion.

Adding to the musical damnation of Joe Buck Yourself is Buck’s appropriately written lyrics. Are they simple? Sure. Buck’s no Bob Dylan, but he didn’t need to be. All he needed to do with his lyrics to support his musical design was convince listeners that he could be as evil as his guitar made him seem. He certainly succeeds, as the album’s secret-agent-rocker-from-hell highlight, “Evil Motherfucker from Tennessee,” accomplishes this feat all by itself. Throughout the rest of the record, Joe Buck continues to build his horror-film villain persona. The self-anointed “Hillbilly Speedball” tells listeners that he and his hate are not even of this world in the song “Planet Seeth.” He “Took Up with the Devil” at a young age, and as he says in the dark, swamp blues song “I Will Survive,” he took his chances and made it through his personal hell. Now, he “wants revenge” against all those who crossed him. He asks all listeners if they “are his enemies,” and to those who are, Buck promises that he’ll “Dig a Hole” for each of them. And as if that isn’t a scary enough proposition, he also lets his enemies know in another album highlight that “The Devil is on His Way” as well. While Buck’s musical persona knows his anger will “lead him to an early grave,” as he states in the album’s only intermission from the evil, “Bitter is the Day,” it appears as though he has accepted it, making the story of Joe Buck Yourself slightly tragic, and even more captivating.

So how does such an album show that “hillbilly pride” is going nationwide? Well, obviously, there are another brand of hillbillies out there. This kind of hillbilly is no urban cowboy. His girl doesn’t think your tractor is sexy. And neither are interested in a day at the rodeo. No, these hillbillies seem to come from the modern-times Flannery O’Connor south. They’re loud, they’re angry, and they’re not about to let anyone get the best of them. Joe Buck’s debut album is for this kind of hillbilly. If you’re expecting a radio-friendly, easy-listening album, stay away. Hell, even if you’re expecting a country record, stay away. But if you want a hard, twangy, demon-fueled, punk-fused album that’ll rip your heart from your chest and use it as a yo-yo while you lay dying, buy Joe Buck Yourself. It’s a scary-good time you’ll want to experience over and over again.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

CD REVIEW: Matt Watts' "The Ever-Seeing Bird"

Label: Self-Released

Imagine you are settling down for an evening with your girlfriend, some popcorn, and the latest chick flick to be released on DVD. You’re not too excited about the movie, but you figure hopefully things will get fun after it’s over. Or maybe, if you’re REALLY lucky, before it ends.

On the best of these evenings, the movie won’t be so bad. Heck, you might even remember some of those early scenes. You know, the scenes before your girlfriend stopped paying attention to the movie and started paying attention to you. You’ll DEFINITELY remember that part of the evening.

There are two things you won’t remember though. The first is the bland popcorn. I mean, come on, no matter the brand, microwave popcorn is not exactly the most enticing food in the world. The second thing? The movie’s quiet, non-offensive, non-intruding soundtrack. When listening to Matt Watts’ The Ever-Seeing Bird, listeners will be reminded of such a soundtrack… for both better and worse. While Watts’ folk album is obviously a romantic, heartfelt ode to his love, his family, and his friends, it’s as quiet as a lamb, and like the soundtrack of a romantic comedy, it’s easily forgettable.

The most glaring problem that damns The Ever-Seeing Bird to mediocrity-ville is that all of the songs sound identical. The melodies are slow, and while there have been plenty of great slow, solo-acoustic folk songs, by the fifth or sixth song of Bird, I was losing interest. Had Watts done things a little differently, could have this been avoided? Well, yes. He could have made a bigger attempt in writing more diverse guitar parts for the songs, and he also could have broken the shackles that seemed to be restraining his vocals on the album. While it is pretty safe to say that Watts is not Freddie Mercury, one can tell that he has greater vocal potential than what he displayed on this release. Whispery vocals are fine for a song, or two, or three. Ryan Adams pulled this off on his remarkable Heartbreaker very well by mixing such tracks with a few outstanding upbeat numbers. Such vocals, however, do not work for an entire album, especially on one that lacks melodical diversity like Bird.

However, this is not saying that there aren’t any positive notes to be made about The Ever-Seeing Bird. The album features good (and, on occasion, great) lyrical writing. Matt Watts obviously knows how to pen some great lines. Anyone that can develop a line like “too drunk tonight on conversation that stings” has talent. There are several other similar instances of pure poetry on the record that will catch a listener’s attention. On the album’s best tracks, the beautiful folk poetry flows from start to finish. These include the serenades to a lover “Hurry Please Hurry” and “When Sunlight Hits Seattle,” and Bird’s greatest highlight, “Twigs and Leaves.” This song, Watts’ inspiring and heartfelt tribute to his father, features a wonderful metaphor and solid imagery. No, his poetry will not always leave listeners awestruck, but overall, it is a well-written album from a lyrical standpoint.

So, is there potential in this States-born young folk singer now living in Belgium? Well, sure. Bird proves that he can at least hold his own as a lyricist. On future releases, Watts needs to maximize his vocal ability. He also should think about incorporating more instruments into his music. After all, he can play several instruments, and he can use this talent to create truly memorable folk music. A chance for the future is there. Unfortunately, the future is not now, and the chick flick soundtrack that is The Ever-Seeing Bird provides only a vision of what could be for Matt Watts. Hope you remembered to buy Milk Duds…

Thursday, July 12, 2007

CD REVIEW: The Hackensaw Boys' "Look Out"

Label: Nettwerk Records
Ahh the sweet sounds of bluegrass. Thanks to a little movie called O Brother Where Art Thou, the genre has garnered more attention over the past few years… even though it never really went away. It’s a good thing too because with so many great bands emerging, we may be in the middle of the most exciting era of bluegrass in several decades. However, even though they use the same instrument arrangements that Bill Monroe made famous in the 1930s, some of these bands add an extra spark to the genre. They approach bluegrass with punk rock-like energy to create a vibe that is popular among fans of all ages and styles of music.

One of these bands is The Hackensaw Boys. Even though they have been playing together for almost ten years, they did not release an album on a label until 2005. When I heard that record, titled Love What You Do, I wondered why the underground country press was not mentioning them in the same breath as the more popular Old Crow Medicine Show. I believed then, and still do, that The Hackensaw Boys’ label debut rivaled OCMS’ first label effort. What I did not realize is that many of the Boys’ longtime fans disagreed. They said that even though they were still an outstanding live act, the Boys had lost their killer edge on the album… that it was far too mellow and polished. When I sat down to listen to their new 2007 release, I did so with a sense of curiosity, wondering what sound I was going to experience. Well, to those who think that The Hackensaw Boys’ lost their edge, Look Out! The appropriately titled album finds the Boys returning to their roots, full steam ahead.

The Hackensaw Boys’ line-up has some changed over the years, but it doesn’t take long for Look Out listeners to come to the conclusion that these guys are good! Bluegrass is a genre that demands solid musicianship for success, and each member of the band is a tremendous musician. This is especially true of Jimmy Stelling, who plays incredibly blistering banjo. His talent doesn’t stop there, as both he and Ferd Moyse absolutely saw the fiddle in half. Watching them play live must be amazing, and their work on the record is phenomenal. When the musical talents of bandmates Jesse Fiske, Robert Bullington, Ward Harrison, Justin Neuhardt, and part-timer Tom Peloso (Modest Mouse) are added to the mix, listeners are treated to a sonic blast of bluegrass goodness.

Several of The Hackensaw Boys add their vocal chops to Look Out, but they also share the songwriting responsibilities as well. It makes sense, then, that the album has quite a wide variety in sound. Some songs are banjo-fueled hellraisers (“Look Out Dog, Slow Down Train” and “Sweet Petunia”), which will undoubtedly please longtime fans. However, some tracks find the Boys leaving the “punk” at home and sound like bluegrass numbers that could have been recorded back in the genre’s heyday (the hoedown “Blue Eyed Girl” and the music-sets-you-free tale of “Radio”). Some resemble the sounds of other bands who dabble in bluegrass, such as the Avett Brothers-esque “Baltimore” and “Sally Ann,” which could easily be an Old Crow Medicine Show song. Still, other songs feature the Boys reaching into other musical genres to create some real gems. Examples of this include a real highlight of the album, the outstanding jazzed-up “Too Much Time,” and the album’s closer, “Just One Chance,” which mixes speedy bluegrass and excellent blues harmonica.

The stories told in the songs vary as well. Some are stories of relationships, which could easily take place today. However, for folks who long for stories that take place during the glory years of bluegrass, Look Out listeners will be pleased to find three such numbers. These include a tremendous cover of the traditional “Gospel Plow,” a tribute to a legendary United States president (“F.D.R.”), and the Tom Peloso-penned “Hobo.” “Hobo” is one of the best hobo songs to come out in years and would make both Jimmie Rodgers and Jimmy Martin proud. It makes one wish that Peloso would quit Modest Mouse and rejoin The Hackensaw Boys as a fulltime member. It’s an album highlight, as is “Oh Girl,” an absolute dark dandy of a vengeance song… a true modern bluegrass classic!

I’ve always hated the term “old-timey.” It’s a strong label that categorizes a style as a relic of the past… one that can’t be truly appreciated in the modern age. While The Hackensaw Boys may utilize an instrument arrangement of the 1930s, they refuse to let the bluegrass genre become such a relic. Look Out is the Boys at their best, a perfect medium between their raw early years and the more polished sound of their previous release. Thanks to such solid modern bluegrass albums like this, maybe soon we can stop referring to the style as “old-timey”… and start calling it simply “good-timey.”

Monday, July 02, 2007

CD REVIEW: Warren Zevon's "Preludes"

Label: New West Records
First of all, if any of you haven’t yet experienced the genius that was Warren Zevon, quit reading this review. For heaven’s sake, go to your local record store immediately and purchase the Genius greatest hits package. Go ahead. Don’t even think about it. You won’t be sorry.

However, for those of you who know Warren Zevon through his incredible music, read on. Recently, with the help of Warren’s son Jordan, New West Records has delivered Preludes to the world. As the title suggests, it is a compilation of previously unheard Zevon demos, discovered after his death, from his early years. Therefore, listeners shouldn’t expect to hear the almost-famous Excitable Boy Warren Zevon or the wise, old, dark sage of his later albums. Here, we get the young singer/songwriter, struggling to find his way in the music business… and in the world. A world complete with poverty, alcohol, drugs, shady characters, prostitution… truly the dark side of Southern California. It’s appropriate that the album ends with a demo of the Zevon masterpiece “Desperados Under the Eaves” because Preludes could be the soundtrack of the days he spent stranded in that Hollywood Hawaiian Hotel. Stark and sparse, often either solo-guitar or solo-piano, this is not music that’ll get you dancing. What it will do is send your mind on journey… one that is often both very lonely and uncomfortable.

Preludes features great demo versions of classic Warren Zevon songs. Some of them, in fact, are even better than their studio album counterparts. The versions of the letting-go lament “Hasten Down the Wind” and the red-light number “The French Inhaler” are the best this reviewer has ever heard. Ditto for “Carmelita,” a dark tale of life in the drug trade. Zevon’s voice bleeds emotion as he sings these songs, and the lack of the extra instrumentation creates an even more appropriate mood than the studio takes. The solo-guitar demo of “Join Me in LA” and heartbreaking tale of hopeless love “Tule’s Blues” continue to build this miserable world. We also get a much more complete look at the story of the “Accidentally Like a Martyr” lovers. With extra lyrics and a different sound, the demo fills in all of the depressing details. Things do actually get a little lighter with a funkier “Werewolves in London,” a garage-rock flavored “Poor Poor Pitiful Me,” and an Eagles-esque “I Used to Ride So High.” While these demos are still more sparse and darker than the studio versions, their upbeat nature give listeners a break from the doom and gloom, albeit a short one.

Of course, diehard fans will be happy to know that Preludes also includes six demos of songs that were never released on any Warren Zevon album. They’ll be happier to know that any of these songs could have easily appeared on his early albums. The opening piano track, “Empty Hearted Town,” is loaded with outstanding imagery and description, and it sets up listeners perfectly for the Preludes experience. “Steady Rain” follows, and it’s a great rainy day song for a rainy day album. Zevon compares the rain with teardrops, and states that both fall night and day. Towards the middle of the album, we find him hoping for a better day in “Going All the Day.” Yet, there’s something about Zevon’s voice and the jazzy musical arrangement that tells listeners that he is a little unconvinced about his chances. Then, we get an unfinished demo of “Studebaker.” Previously, the song could only be found on the Enjoy Every Sandwich tribute, and was performed by son Jordan. The Zevons’ deliveries of this song are so similar, it’s eerie. Close to the end of the album, we get “Stop Rainin Lord” and “The Rosarita Beach Café.” The former is a drifter’s recollection of a chance meeting with a hobo that is in the vein of Bruce Springsteen. The latter is, basically, a companion piece to “Desperados Under the Eaves.” If the inescapable café wasn’t in a border town, you could picture right next to the Hollywood Hawaiian. While the similarities to “Desperados” are probably why it never made an album, it is still a beautiful song, and a highlight of the album.

The second disc of Preludes presents an interview with Warren Zevon from 2000, around the time his album Life’ll Kill Ya was released. Here, we see another side of Zevon, as he discusses his new album, and more interestingly, his life in music. His classic dark sense of humor shines, and he comes across as a very thoughtful, reflective, and intelligent man. Highlights include his thoughts on songwriting, his story about meeting Billy Joel, his discussion of his piano and guitar background, and his opinions on spirituality.

Last year when John Carter Cash released a two-disc set of Johnny Cash demos called Personal File, several music fans rejoiced. Fans of Cash were able to hear him sing songs he loved as a child, as well as demos of several originals and covers that were found after his death. Now, we have a Personal File on Warren Zevon. Only, this collection is more powerful and captivating. It is often said that singer/songwriters share themselves in their work, and there is no doubt this is the case with Preludes. In these demos, Zevon shares the truth… the cold, lonely, hopeless truth… of his younger days with the world. You can’t help but be moved by the honesty, the pain, and the lyrical brilliance… nor can you hope but help that Jordan Zevon just may have enough demos for a Preludes 2!