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!