Saturday, April 21, 2007

CD REVIEW: Dale Watson's "From the Cradle to the Grave"

Label: Hyena Records

The story behind the album is already old news to the fans of underground country music. And it’s quite the tale. Lone Star troubadour Dale Watson is invited to a Tennessee cabin by his Hollywood friend Johnny Knoxville to record a new album. Oh, and the cabin? It was previously owned by the Man in Black, the one and only Johnny Cash. How could Watson say no to the prospect of recording in the home of one of his biggest heroes? Well… he couldn’t, and the product of this story will be released on April 24th. On this day, From the Cradle to the Grave, his first release on Hyena Records, will be delivered to fans that have eagerly awaited this album for months. And guess what folks? As usual, Dale Watson does not disappoint.

When Watson agreed to do the album, he stated that he did not want to record an entire album of songs that sounded like Johnny Cash. Still, he could not deny his presence during the recording sessions, and his presence is also very much a part of the album. Tales of love, death, and murder make up the majority of the record, resulting in perhaps Watson’s darkest album to date. Often, Cash’s signature sound is there too. That familiar shuffle is especially present on the title track, which ends with some of the best lyrics of his career. “All we really are are the memories that we’ve made and leave behind from the cradle to the grave.” How’s that for philosophical wisdom? It’s also present on “Justice for All,” the album’s first single. In this highly emotional story of a father filled with rage towards the man who killed his child, Watson states that even though he knows “an eye for an eye will leave the whole world blind, that’d he gun the bastard down if he had the chance.” Cash would be proud, and he’d be a fan of the tale of a murderous lover’s date with Alabama’s electric chair, “Yellow Mama,” as well. Finally, the album ends with probably the greatest tribute song ever written for the Man in Black. “Runaway Train,” with its speeding locomotive musical pace, describes Cash perfectly. All four songs are standouts, and in a perfect world, all would be country radio hits. Forty years ago, they would have been.

However, Cash’s sound is not the only one present on From the Cradle to the Grave. Watson and his always-outstanding band, The Lone Stars, also deliver to us hints of Waylon Jennings. “It’s Not Over Now,” a song about a man who simply cannot put his past love behind him, sounds very much like one of ‘ol Waymore’s blues. Watson also teamed with Chuck Mead (of BR549 fame) and Chris Scruggs to write “You Always Get What You Always Got.” A musical “you get what you deserve” message, it makes one wish that Mead and Watson would work together more often. BR549’s sound is ALL over this one, and folks, it’s a sound that fits Watson very well. Without a doubt, it’s an album highlight.

Despite these influences, the most recognizable sound on From the Cradle to the Grave is that of Watson himself. He and his band have created a sound over the past few years that is unique, combining the influence of Cash, Jennings, and Haggard with strong fiddle and steel guitar. A great example of this is “Time Without You,” a deceptively upbeat lament from a man who lost his love to the Lord. Again, a standout song. Another example is “Why Oh Why Live a Lie,” which finds him frustrated, trying to figure out why an ex-lover can’t be true to him, or even herself. Watson also shows his diversity with this fiddle and steel fused sound with “Tomorrow Never Comes.” In a musical sense, and perhaps a lyrical sense as well, this bluesy number is the album’s darkest track. With fiddle and steel playing eerie roles, and an outstanding guitar effect that resembles a bell’s toll, the song states that despite what false prophets say, no one knows when this world will end. No, this is no “album of Johnny Cash songs.” It’s a Dale Watson record, and a damn good one.

So no faults at all? Well, okay, so there is one minor flaw that keeps this record from being perfect. Even though it’s a great little upbeat country number, “Hollywood Hillbilly,” a tribute to Johnny Knoxville, just does not fit with the rest of the songs here. Yes, it was Knoxville who made this album possible, but the song itself would be much more at home on a previous Watson album, People I’ve Known, Places I’ve Been. In fact, it would be one of the best tracks on that record. It even would have fit on Whiskey or God, a hodgepodge album of Watson live show favorites. On the extremely dark From the Cradle to the Grave though, it just does not blend in well.

Still, this is extremely minor. One might even call it nitpicky, especially since this is Watson’s finest record in years. Recently, he stated that because of its mainstream demise, he was abandoning the “country” label in favor of a more fitting genre-moniker, “Ameripolitan,” a term he devised himself. Honestly, it does not matter what he wants to call his sound, because with or without a label, it’s incredible. Who cares what happens to mainstream country? As long as we have artists like Dale Watson releasing memorable albums like From the Cradle to the Grave, real music fans will be just fine. Somewhere, the Man in Black is smiling… and probably singing along.

To purchase this album, please visit Hyena Records' online store

To see the video for "Justice for All," click here

Friday, April 13, 2007

CD REVIEW: Robbie Fulks' "Revenge"

Label: Yep Roc Records

Over on an review, I saw Robbie Fulks referred to as “alt-country’s smartest smartass.” I absolutely love this because it is a perfect description of Fulks. Anyone who has experienced his music knows that his snarling sense of sarcastic humor is a highlight of all of his albums. So too is his brilliance. Fulks, who was given a scholarship to Columbia University (yes… the Ivy League Columbia University) out of high school, writes arguably the most intelligent country song of anyone in the underground scene. With Revenge, Robbie shows that this intelligence does not stop at songwriting. His 2007 double-live album is not only an excellent musical achievement. Like a musical essay, it has an introduction, two solid discs of music that represent different sides of the Fulks live experience, and a great conclusion, bringing everything together. It is truly a flawless package.

Disc 1 (entitled “Standing”) of Revenge finds Robbie Fulks performing with a full band. Needless to say, it rocks. One can tell that Fulks has been touring with this band for a long time because the sound is tight throughout the entire disc. The disc begins with the hilarious song/skit “We’re on the Road.” It just may be the most perfect intro to a live album ever made. Robbie jokingly introduces each member of the band as they are “driving to the next show.” However, a call comes in from the head of the record company. They want a new record, quickly, and are not willing to lend him much money to get it done. Fulks’ solution? Make a live album! One can’t help but chuckle, and the good times never stop as ten solid songs follow. Fans are treated to a great mix of outstanding renditions of Robbie’s past gems as well as three new numbers that are sure to please. Heartbreak never sounded so much fun as it does on these takes of “Goodbye, Good Lookin” and “Rock Bottom Pop.1.” The live versions of songs like “Mad at a Girl” and “Busy Not Crying” sound even better than their studio predecessors, and Robbie really pours his soul into his tribute to the classic country sound, “The Buck Starts Here.” The new songs are excellent too. “Fixin to Fall,” the tale of a poor sucker about to take the plunge into the land of roses and chocolates, would be a highlight on any of Fulks’ studio albums, and is a winner here as well. The depressing story of denial “You Don’t Mean It” is good, and the North Carolina celebration “Cigarette State” is even better. The latter track must be a live-show hit, and it is a perfect addition to this collection. It’s hillbilly madness at its best! Finally, the first disc of Revenge ends with its strongest rocker, a fine version of “Let’s Kill Saturday Night.” Obviously, Robbie Fulks knows what rockin’ country is supposed to sound like!

So that’s that, right? Great live album! Nope, kids, it gets even better. To only share a full-band set would be giving fans only one side of the Robbie Fulks live experience. Fulks also does stripped-down, “Unplugged” style acoustic shows, and thus, this side is represented on “Sitting,” disc two of Revenge. In many ways, this disc is even more interesting. Listeners are presented with three originals (two of them new), an outstanding set of covers, and some fun banter with the audience. The acoustic Fulks originals are great. The dark “In Bristol Town One Bright Day” sounds even bleaker here than on Couples in Trouble. It also sounds older, as though it could have been recorded decades ago. Think O Brother Where Art Thou. “On a Real Good Day” shows a man struggling to put on a happy face despite his depression. Finally, “I Like Being Left Alone” is classic Fulks. Yes, it’s comical on the surface, but a thick layer of sadness lies just below. It’s the kind of song that no one else could pull off as well. The covers are great too, including great renditions of “Bluebirds are Singing for Me” and “Away Out on the Old Saint Sabbath,” a duet with Kelly Hogan. We are even given a cover of Jimmie Logsdon’s odd-but-fun “I Wanna Be Mama’d,” which was also featured on Fulks’ cover record, 13 Hillbilly Giants. However, it is Fulks’ most unlikely cover that ends up being the highlight of the disc… a take on Cher’s 1998 hit “Believe.” Using hiccup vocals in spots to mimic Cher’s original, it is obviously hilarious. Yet, somehow, he makes it sound… heartfelt, even meaningful. This is the genius of Robbie Fulks, and it can be found throughout both discs of Revenge.

With a track listing that covers songs from almost all of Fulks’ albums (except for the “b-sides” disc The Very Best of Robbie Fulks and, interestingly, his most recent release Georgia Hard), this live record could easily be called a “greatest hits” release. Fortunately, it is even better. Fulks hates most live albums, even going so far as to call them “ripoffs,” filled with bad versions of old songs. So, he made sure to include solid new originals and great covers in addition to excellent versions of old favorites to prevent his own live album from earning that dubious title. Of course, to fans of Robbie Fulks, this is not surprising. From the superb introduction track to his concluding remarks, from “Standing” to “Sitting,” Revenge is a reflection of the artist that created it… pure brilliance.

Monday, April 09, 2007

CD REVIEW: Sons of Perdition's "The Kingdom Is On Fire"

Label: Gravewax Records

Satan is among us tonight, friends! In this world and these times of darkness, who shall save us from ultimate damnation? Well, Zebulon Whatley seems pretty determined to try his best. Whatley is the mastermind behind the gothic-western folk outfit The Sons of Perdition, and he has just delivered their debut album The Kingdom Is On Fire to the world. Appropriately released on Easter Sunday, it does not take listeners long to realize that even though the album tells several tales of the End Times, this is no ordinary contemporary Christian record. No rainbows here… just pure final judgment, in all its hellish glory.

So how does the record sound? Well… it sounds like it was recorded decades ago, in the desperate Wild West. Whatley plays an outstanding western guitar, which sets the mood immediately from the beginning intro track “This Land is Cursed” all the way to the end of the record. And if his guitar sets the mood, his deep, gloomy vocals completely establish it. Like Nick Cave at his absolute creepiest, Whatley’s vocals are perfect for this kind of music. Combined, the musicianship and vocals make The Kingdom Is On Fire a pure sonic treat for fans of gothic country music.

The album is an interesting, satisfying experience. It seems as though it is divided into two halves for a “darkest before the dawn” type of effect. And wow is the first half dark. The Sons of Perdition are not just prepared to tell tales of death and hell to us… they are prepared to pound them into our pitiful skulls. First, we get “The Party”… a heartwarming tale of madness as a man murders his entire family with an axe. Then, we have “Anhelo,” a story about a man whose wife has been killed. Even though he knows the Lord will condemn him to the flames, he is hell-bent on gaining revenge on her murderer. “There is a Judgment” follows. In it, a condemned soul warns another not to commit a similar suicidal sin. Next, in “Blood in the Valley,” the Sons provide a warning to hypocritical Christians that they will meet a fiery fate. Fans of Those Poor Bastards will be particularly interested in this track, for Lonesome Wyatt lends his talent by delivering a passionate hellfire sermon at its midpoint. Finally, we are given perhaps the most interesting track in this pitch-black first half. “Burial at Sea” features an outstanding string arrangement, and is a story, taking place in 1693, about a man who builds a prosperous life away from his homeland across the sea. However when he sends for his loved ones to join him, their ship is mercilessly attacked by the legendary sea monsters Kraken and Leviathan. Whatley has an incredible knack for telling these creepy, religious gothic tales, and it is made evident during the first half of The Kingdom Is On Fire.

Then, all of a sudden, something happens. After the delicious “intermission’ track “Cannibals of Rotenburg,” the mood of the music seems to change. Much of the dark imagery remains… blood, death, and judgment… but still, things seem to lighten up a bit. Gone is the constant funeral dirge sound, and in its place, the Sons start to explore other traditional country and folk sounds. “All He Wants (Is My Blood)” is a country/bluegrass gospel type number with a gothic twist, where Whatley states that he is confident that the Lord will bring him salvation in exchange for his blood. Next is a mandolin-fused, dark Carter Family-esque prayer for the end of the world called “An End to All Flesh.” The interesting story of “Death of a Shuckster” follows, in which a rainmaker promises a downpour to a drought-stricken town. When the rain doesn’t come, the town folk murder him, which leads the angels in heaven to flood the town… killing everyone because of their sin. Then we get “The Legend of Saw Jones.” This Frankenstein-meets-Civil War South story is the one song that doesn’t seem to belong on The Kingdom Is On Fire, but is so entertaining, we’ll forgive Zeb and the boys. Finally, the album ends with two solid tracks. “Fall to Your Knees” finds the Sons giving a final plea to sinners to repent before it’s too late to be part of Heaven’s glory, while “I Wanna Go to Heaven” is a straight-up traditional country number in which Whatley makes his preferred destination clear to listeners. The song ends what is an absolutely phenomenal album from start to finish.

Thanks to their “Pills I Took” partnership with Hank Williams III, Those Poor Bastards have brought life to the gothic country scene. Still, several fans of this sound have been waiting for another band or artist to step up and give the scene its second major star. With this outstanding debut, Zebulon Whatley and the Sons of Perdition seem ready to do just that. Putting their own original western spin on gothic country music, the Sons have delivered a beautiful brimstone masterpiece with The Kingdom Is On Fire. Glory to us all!

CD REVIEW: Bobby Bare, Jr.'s Young Criminals Starvation League's "The Longest Meow"

Label: Bloodshot Records

When it was announced that Bobby Bare, Jr. was releasing a new album last September, this reviewer became instantly excited. After all, Bare Jr. has already proven to be an outstanding artist on the rise. He and his band, the Young Criminals Starvation League, have established an original sound that refuses to be pinned down in any one genre, and his songwriting is already living up to the family name established by his legendary father, Bobby Bare, Sr. His previous album, From the End of Your Leash, had become a personal favorite. So, when I heard that the new album, The Longest Meow, was set for release, naturally, I was quite interested. After doing a little research and learning that the album contained 11 songs, was made in 11 hours, and that he had used 11 players to record it, I became even more intrigued. What an interesting concept, I thought. Something only Bobby Bare, Jr. could dream up! I knew I had to hear this record.

So how is it? Well… it’s okay. In many respects it lives up to the level of excellence one would expect from Bare. In some instances though, it falls a little short.

First, the musicianship is flat-out incredible. The 11-person group of musicians (including members of My Morning Jacket and …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead) is on fire throughout the record. Whether it’s the heavy rocking “The Heart Bionic,” the mariachi-flavored “Back to Blue,” or the sparse cover of the Pixies’ “Where is My Mind,” the music is always top-notch, and memorable at every turn. In this respect, Bare has outdone himself, as he has never created a better “sounding” record than The Longest Meow.

Unfortunately, if you are looking for an outstanding set of songs from start to finish, as Bare provided on his previous album, you will likely be a little let down. While some of the songs are among his finest achievements, others, especially towards the end of the record, fail to make a memorable impression.

The Longest Meow starts out very strong. In fact, the first three songs make up one of the best opening trios of any album released in 2006. After a brief sonic intro, we have the previously mentioned “The Heart Bionic.” The song, with its incredible bass line, hearkens back to Bare Jr.’s heavier past. It’ll stick in your head for hours. “Gun Show” follows, and with it, so does a dark aura that seems to haunt most of Meow’s greatest songs. This dark tale of death screams Springsteen’s Nebraska. Finally, the last song of this tremendous threesome is “Back to Blue.” Featuring a horn section, wonderful steel guitar, extremely clever, abstract wordplay, and an overall country-rock vibe, it reminds listeners of Desire-era Bob Dylan.

However, the rest of The Longest Meow is hit-and-miss. Some songs reek of that horrible little f-word… filler. While the abstract wordplay works for songs like “Back to Blue,” it does not work for a song like “Sticky Chemical.” “Uh Wuh Oh” and “Snuggling World Championship” are fun little rockers, but there is not much in terms of lyrical depth… usually one of Bare’s greatest strengths. And while “Mayonnaise Brain” is fine lyrically, it’s perhaps a little too low-key musically, and fails to stand out the way it should.

Still, some songs live up to the quality established by the first three tracks. The journey through hell that is “Demon Valley” is great, as is the album’s tear-jerking closer, “Stop Crying.” It’s one of those rare break-up songs that cannot be called cliché in any way. Finally, “Borrow Your Cape” is an outstanding political anthem that delivers a serious punch. Some of Bare’s all-time best lyrics can be found in this song. It’s direct, but clever at the same time. After listening to this song, it makes me wonder why Neil Young didn’t call up Bare to help him write songs on his recent Living With War album. “Borrow Your Cape” is better than any song on Mr. Young’s rather disappointing recent collection.

Around the time that the album came out, a friend of mine (and fellow reviewer) received a copy of Meow. It was the first Bare Jr. album he had heard, and he was completely in love with it. This says a great deal about both Bare and this record. Even though The Longest Meow may not be a great Bare Jr. record, it certainly would be a solid record if it were released by most anyone else. If you are looking for an album of the same quality as the first two Young Criminals Starvation League records, you will probably be disappointed. However, even though it’s flawed, Meow is still a good album… and merits a listen.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

CD REVIEW: Dwight Yoakam's "Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc." (Deluxe Remastered Edition)

Label: Rhino Records

Twenty years ago, Mr. Dwight Yoakam blessed us with his debut album Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. Some said then that he was too rock and roll for country radio. Looking back, ironically, he was probably too COUNTRY for country radio. The album was pure classic honky tonk, with blazing fiddles, and hard core 1950’s bar room soul. Starting with the hit cover of Johnny Horton’s immortal country anthem “Honky Tonk Man” through a cover of songwriting master Harlan Howard’s “Heartaches By the Number,” with plenty of country goodness in between, Yoakam immediately established that he was a force to be reckoned with… whether Nashville liked it or not.

That was 1986. In 2006, Rhino Records, in a partnership with Reprise, released the 20th anniversary edition of Yoakam’s classic debut. To hardcore Dwight fans, it would have been incredible just to have the album’s wonderful songs remastered and given the superior sound quality they deserved. Well, Rhino certainly delivered in that respect. However, to this reviewer’s delight, the label gave us so much more. Not only are we given a remastered Guitars, Cadillacs, but also Yoakam’s first ten demos recorded in 1981, and a live show recorded at the Roxy in 1986. The demos were previously released on the Reprise Please Baby: The Warner Bros. Years box set, but a vast majority of the live show has never seen an official release. It is an irresistible package, even for those who own the original issue of the album.

As one listens to Yoakam’s 1981 demos, one cannot help but wonder how in the hell did no one sign this guy? Among the demos are songs from Guitars, Cadillacs and, with the exception of the still unreleased “Please Daddy,” songs that would appear on Dwight’s future records, such as the classic weeper “I Sang Dixie.” It must be said that these are not your usual demos. Combined, the 1981 demos could have not only been one hell of a country record, but a greatest hits record for most artists. They are true treasures to experience, and make it very clear that Dwight Yoakam was a very special artist from the beginning, even if the country music industry failed to notice.

After the demos on Disc 1 end, the classic album begins to play. Guitars, Cadillacs has never sounded better, and it still sounds as fresh as it did in 1986. It’s proof that hard core honky tonk never goes out of style. In case some readers have never actually heard the album, it’s a ten song powerhouse of solid country gold. It’s all here. Along with Horton’s “Honky Tonk Man” and Howard’s “Heartaches By the Number,” Yoakam also provides listeners with an outstanding honky tonk version of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.” He penned the remaining seven songs himself, and they display his amazing country songwriting talent.

In addition to the songwriting brilliance and Dwight’s always-incredible vocals, the album has also become legendary due to its diversity. It’s one of the very few contestants for “the all-time perfect country album.” All of the elements of real country music are present. You have honky tonk numbers (the bar room rambler’s warning to women “I’ll Be Gone”). You have tales of broken hearts (the tear-commanding “It Won’t Hurt” and the lament “South of Cincinnati”). You even have references to the Great Beyond (the pledge of love for both the Lord and Kentucky “Bury Me” and the desperate plea “Miner’s Prayer”). Finally, you have the now-legendary title-track, which combines all of the previously mentioned elements into a celebration of country music. During his long and illustrious career, even though Yoakam has matched the quality of Guitars, Cadillacs on a couple of occasions, he has never outdone it. This is a testament to how truly wonderful the record is.

This, of course, all leads to the second disc… the live Roxy show. Most Dwight fans already know how good Guitars, Cadillacs is. Diehard fans may even already have the box set with the demos. However, the entire Roxy show, never before released in its entirety, provides a thrill for all fans. And it is indeed one hell of a thrill. A still young Yoakam completely takes over the stage of the famous rock and roll club with his brand of “old hillbilly stuff,” and the crowd is more than happy to go along for the ride. The sound quality of the live recording is incredible, and Yoakam is full of energy as he rips through a set list of outstanding covers and originals. Highlights include outstanding versions of “Honky Tonk Man,” “Guitars, Cadillacs,” two excellent Bill Monroe covers (“Can’t You Hear Me Calling” and “Rocky Road Blues”), and a flat-out rocking version of Hank Williams’ “My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It.” If the first two parts of the re-release weren’t enough to make one want to buy it, this live show is one damn strong final selling point. It completes the Guitars, Cadillacs experience.

It is a little strange that Rhino and Reprise decided to put both the demos and album on the same disc. In a perfect world, this set would be 3 discs, with each part being kept separate. However, it was probably released this way to save folks money, which is completely understandable. This one very minor complaint aside, the decision to buy the re-release is a no-brainer. Containing something for everyone, fans should only hope that the rest of Yoakam’s catalog is given similar treatment. The title of “Deluxe Edition” well-deserved, the 20th Anniversary issue of Guitars, Cadillacs is a winner in every respect.