Sunday, June 27, 2010

"Carol Kaye" - Laura Veirs

On the surface, Laura Veirs may look like just one of the typical “girl with a guitar” types, but dig just a little and you will find she is anything but. For instance, although she’s released eight albums and an EP since 1999, she didn’t begin writing songs or even pick up an instrument until she was in college. Also, despite the fact that all of her albums have been in the folk vein, she started off in a riot girl punk band called Rair Kx. She recorded her first album in one three hour session. She studied Mandarin Chinese in college and even worked as a translator for a time in China. See what I mean?

Laura writes the kind of songs that really stand on their own when done solo and can also be nicely expanded upon with a variety of instrumental ornamentation. Her lyrics are easy to follow and get wrapped up in, but she’ll drop a thought provoking line on you before you know what hit you. Currently, my favorite song of hers is the whimsical tribute “Carol Kaye” off her most recent release, July Flame. Carol Kaye is one of those musicians that you may not have heard of, but you have definitely heard. Carol is a bass player that rose to prominence in the 60’s and has logged over 10,000 studio sessions. Easily one of the most well respected and widely heard bass players of all time, she’s played on some of the biggest records in history. Some of her bigger credits include “River Deep, Mountain High,” “Homeward Bound,” “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling,” “Then He Kissed Me,” “I’m a Believer,” “Suspicious Minds,” a number of television theme songs and a ton of Beach Boys albums, including the legendary Pet Sounds. Laura not only picked an awesome icon to celebrate in song, she did it in a cool way by referencing a bunch of the songs Carol worked on in the lyrics. The bouncy, finger-picked musical history lesson is fun to listen to and it’s educational. Listen closely for some lush background vocals by My Morning Jacket’s Jim James as well.

You can purchase Laura's music at www.lauraveirs.com and you can find out more about the legendary Carol Kaye HERE.

"Carol Kaye" - Laura Veirs (July Flame)

Friday, June 25, 2010

Thad Cockrell - To Be Loved (Album Review)

When your father and two brothers are pastors, I’m sure there’s a bit of an expectation weighing on your career choices. For singer/songwriter Thad Cockrell though, sharing your story and experiences with God can be done from a Saturday night stage as much as from a Sunday morning pulpit. For his fourth release, To Be Loved, Thad sings about love, God, women and heartbreak over a beautiful, traditional country music backdrop. Before you cringe at the words “country music,” I’m talking about the good stuff here. Thad’s unmistakable voice fits perfectly within the acoustic guitar shuffles, banjo rolls and train line rhythm sections. Even some of the songs that have more modern instrumentation sound like golden oldies thanks to his delivery and the tone of his voice. In a perfect world, you’d be able to hear this album crackling out of a 1950’s transistor radio. Thankfully though, you can hear the next best thing since he released the album on vinyl. The warmth and richness of his voice is best experienced with the crackle and hiss of a record player joining in. Plus, the gorgeous album artwork looks like some of the best work to come out of Bob Ross’ “Joy of Painting” series.

To Be Loved is one of those records that is destined to be too secular for some folks and too religious for others. In reality though, it has a nice, real life balance between the vertically and horizontally directed songs. Songs like “Great Rejoicing,” “The Master’s Calling,” “He Set Me Free” and “Oh To Be Loved” have direct, uncluttered lyrics that could’ve been found in an old hymnal somewhere, while songs like “Beauty Has A Name,” “Rosalyn” and “Lock Up Sarah” deal with love and relationships. It all blends together seamlessly though, without ever feeling like Thad is having to “shift gears.” There are interconnected threads running through all of his lyrics, which leads to an overall cohesion instead of thematic loose ends. No matter the topic though, Thad doesn’t gussy anything up. The ugly aspects are given just as much light as the good ones. In fact, it’s hard to decide if it's his lyrics or his voice that shine the most. I’ve seen Thad in concert a few times and his voice is even more gripping in a live setting. Especially when it’s just him and his guitar. It’s guaranteed chill bumps. If you’ve ever heard the phrase “high lonesome” and wondered what it actually means, then just sit back, close your eyes and give the song “Oh To Be Loved” a spin.

You can find out more about Thad and order To Be Loved at www.thadcockrell.com.

"Oh To Be Loved" - Thad Cockrell (To Be Loved)

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Indigo Girls - Staring Down The Brilliant Dream (Album Review)

Indigo Girls are no stranger to live albums and Staring Down The Brilliant Dream continues in their tradition of successfully capturing the magic and energy of their shows. Instead of just picking one city on the tour, rolling tape and releasing it as an album, they've compiled 31 songs from a variety of concert stops and created a great experience for their fans. While some bands are struggling to release albums with 9 or 10 songs on them, Staring Down The Brilliant Dream is a double album with the first disc clocking in right under an hour and the second disc going over an hour. In addition to the incredible music, the liner notes include personal thoughts on every song from Emily Saliers and Amy Ray regarding the song’s inspiration, concert memories and why they chose the specific performance they did.

Capturing all aspects of their quieter duo moments and their full band jams, Staring Down The Brilliant Dream shows the full spectrum of what an Indigo Girls concert offers. On hushed songs like “Moment Of Forgiveness” and “Salty South,” Amy and Emily’s voices and guitars blend together in a way that leaves no question why they’ve been at the top of the game for 25 years. It’s also really nice to hear the crowd get involved in the sing-a-longs on “Closer To Fine” and “Watershed.” In case anyone may think Indigo Girls are all coffee shops and journal entries, they have no problem cranking the electrics for “Shame On You” and “Go.” Just like with “All Along The Watchtower” from Back On The Bus, Ya’ll and “Midnight Train To Georgia,” “Tangled Up In Blue,” “Down By The River” and “River” from 1200 Curfews; Indigo Girls pull out some killer covers for this live album by turning in heartfelt renditions of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice It's Alright” and The Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses.” With such a talent for songwriting and singing some of the best harmonies around, Indigo Girls cemented their place in musical history a long time ago. I must admit though, I still really enjoy it every time they release another beautiful album to remind us why.

Staring Down The Brilliant Dream will be available June 29th.

"Come On Home" - Indigo Girls (Staring Down The Brilliant Dream)

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

"Scissor Runner" - Jenny and Johnny

Jenny Lewis and Johnathan Rice have combined their musical talents many times over the last few years, even touring together, and they have finally decided to focus their creative efforts into one project. Choosing the name Jenny and Johnny, this girlfriend/boyfriend duo have quite the musical pedigree to bring to the table. Jenny Lewis fronts Rilo Kiley, has put out two stellar solo albums and has shown up on records by folks like Elvis Costello, M. Ward, Bright Eyes and many others. No slouch himself, Johnathan Rice has put out a couple solo albums and EPs, played on Elvis Costello’s Momofuku record, produced Jenny’s last solo record, and even found time to play Roy Orbison in the Johnny Cash biopic "Walk The Line."

Although there hasn’t been a lot of info released about the new album yet, it has been titled I’m Having Fun Now and “Scissor Runner” has been released as a single. As the album title suggests, it sounds like these guys really are having fun and it comes across in the performance. “Scissor Runner” has vocal lines that sound like they were delivered through smiles, lively guitar, bubbling bass and southern California harmonies. I’m pretty sure if you listen closely, you might even hear the sound of the Sun. No one has captured summer love this well since The Beach Boys. I’m excited to hear what these two have in store and the album is set for a late August release.

You can found out more about Jenny and Johnny, as well as download their new single, “Scissor Runner” at www.jennyandjohnnymusic.com.

"Scissor Runner" - Jenny and Johnny (I'm Having Fun Now)

Monday, June 21, 2010

Derek Webb

When trying to turn people on to great music, it’s hard to know where to start with someone I’ve listened to and admired for as long as I have Derek Webb. So let’s just start from the beginning. I first heard his music when my youth pastor passed along a cassette single of “This World” by Caedmon’s Call when I was 16. I was deeply immersed in alternative and punk, but I still could respect some good acoustic folk music, which Caedmon’s Call offered in spades. I really dug the song and picked up their self-titled album when it came out. While they nailed the double acoustic, harmony rich, coffee house vibe better than most, what really grabbed me were Derek Webb’s songs. In a band with three prominent singers and an additional non-touring songwriter, Derek really stood out to me with his passionate, emotive vocals and his transparently honest songwriting. He could handle a smooth ballad or belt out a rocker with equal range and gusto. Immediately I knew this was someone worth listening and paying attention to. I went back and picked up their previous album and EP and was first in line for each new release that came out. Derek’s involvement with Caedmon’s Call had a ridiculously huge impact on me throughout those important years of high school, college, getting married and “growing up.”

"The Truth" - Caedmon's Call (Intimate Portrait EP)

While Caedmon’s Call was transitioning as a band, Derek released his first solo album, She Must and Shall Go Free, in 2003. The alt-country album was grittier and looser than anything he had done previously and his lyrics followed suite. Becoming even more bold and truthful, he spoke strongly about God, sin, grace, other people and how we should view the relationship between them all. Never one to concern himself with fitting in or pleasing the masses, he has changed up musical styles with each subsequent release, while still continuing to hold our collective feet to the fire with his lyrics. In 2007, he joined back up with Caedmon’s Call for the release of Overdressed. Currently, he’s working on their newest album, Raising Up The Dead, that is set for release later this year, as well as Feedback, another solo album of his. Also, throughout all of this time, he has contributed to the projects of his equally super talented wife, singer-songwriter Sandra McCracken, as a songwriter, instrumentalist and producer. Over the years I have seen him countless times in concert, with Caedmon’s Call, by himself and supporting Sandra, and he has never failed to amaze, impress, entertain and encourage me with his songs, explanations, and charitable involvements. I even got to spend some time with him at his studio right before his last album, Stockholm Syndrome, came out. But that’s a story for another day. Derek is easily in my top three songwriters of all time list and if you ask me on the right day, he could be holding the top spot. In a year or two, I will have crossed the line where I will have been listening to him for more years than I will have not listened to him. Hopefully he will still be in full musical stride, cranking out more songs that tickle the ear and speak directly to the heart. Ever the musical shapeshifter, I’m sure it’ll be a polka jazz or raga punk masterpiece.

"Ballad In Plain Red" - Derek Webb (I See Things Upside Down)

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Marah - Life Is A Problem (Album Review)

With his bandmate brother Serge taking a break to raise a new son, Dave Bielanko retreated to an old farmhouse in Pennsylvania’s Amish Country to record Marah’s tenth album, Life Is A Problem. With the band whittled down to only a two-piece, Dave, along with Christine Smith, gathered up every musical instrument they could get their hands on to craft this new batch of songs. The results are eclectic, loose, ambitious, unpolished and really engaging. Whether it was the isolated conditions, the new band dynamic or just the progression of life in general, there’s something really special going on in Life Is A Problem.

Previous Marah albums have toyed a little with different genres and feels, but for the most part they have stayed pretty close to the standard “rock band” arsenal of guitars, bass, drums and occasional keyboards. However, for Life Is A Problem, Dave and Christine went all “Phil Spector in a pawn shop” with the spectrum and quality of instruments they used. Ukulele, xylophone, bagpipes, accordion, banjo, fiddle and more show up alongside, as they describe it, “flea market drums,” “rusty harmonicas” and “a free church piano.” With such a vast array of sounds to play with, the songs have an incredible playfulness and energy to them. Instead of strict song structures and repeating musical patterns, instruments float in and out of the songs effortlessly and comfortably. This type of approach creates a relaxed and unique listening experience. While a few of the songs, “Valley Farm Song” and “Put ‘Em In The Graveyard” for example, are just catchy enough to be released as singles, the majority of the songs fit best within the context and feel of the album as a whole. The spacious, slower songs are exceptionally raw and beautiful along side each other as squeaky violins and gently plucked banjos seamlessly flow together with strummed acoustic guitars and “mostly” in tune pianos. Just like I find something new to laugh at every time I watch “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” I have a feeling I’ll find a new sound or lyric with each spin of Life Is A Problem.

Life Is A Problem will be released digitally on June 22nd and on vinyl and cassette (but not cd) on July 13th.

"Valley Farm Song" - Marah (Life Is A Problem)

Friday, June 18, 2010

Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows: Songs Of John Prine (Album Review)


Tribute albums are a fickle medium to work in. While they are usually filled with good intentions, the follow through can be somewhat lacking. For example, there are a myriad of Johnny Cash and The Clash tribute albums out there with barely enough standout tracks in all of them to make one great album. You want to honor the artist because they are so iconic, but because they are so iconic, it’s hard to truly honor them in a special way that isn’t just adding to the noise. When it’s done right though, it makes for a really great album. Such is the case with Broken Hearts and Dirty Windows: Songs of John Prine from Oh Boy! Records. John Prine has been giving the world song after beautiful song since the early 70’s and shows no signs of stopping any time soon. In fact, he even appears on Shel Silverstein’s tribute album that came out earlier this month. So it’s really nice to see him receive such a gorgeous tribute album of his own. Especially one filled with such faithful and imaginative renditions of his touching songs.
One of the things that makes Broken Hearts and Dirty Windows work so well is the group of artists that appear on it. While contemporaries of Prine’s would fit right in on a tribute album of his (legends like Bob Dylan and Kris Kristofferson never fail to mention him as a songwriting heavyweight), this one goes the route of the younger apprentice. These are musicians that would’ve heard Prine’s music from their parent’s record collection rather than from sharing the stage with him. Showcasing some of the finest names in alt-country, Broken Hearts and Dirty Windows has a great vibe that is both energetic and, for lack of a better word, respectful. The song choices do a really great job of showing the nuances in John’s songwriting skills. The Avett Brothers, Those Darlins, My Morning Jacket, Conor Oberst and Drive-By Truckers all successfully capture John’s upbeat, playful side with their tracks, while Old Crow Medicine Show, Justin Townes Earle, Sara Watkins, Bon Iver and Josh Ritter handle his melancholy side. One thing you’re reminded of while listening to this album is that John has never tried to impress or dazzle anyone with crazy word choices or verbose lines. Instead, he uses everyday language and everyman characters to tell funny, heartbreaking and authentic stories in a way that not many other people can. Each song is immediately accessible, unencumbered by vague lines or veiled metaphors and is as pleasing to the heart as it is the ears.
Broken Hearts and Dirty Windows will be available June 22nd.
"Far From Me" - Justin Townes Earle (Broken Hearts and Dirty Windows)

Thursday, June 17, 2010

"State Line" - Tumbledown

Back in May, I mentioned that Tumbledown was going to release their self-titled debut album on vinyl and it’s finally available! The cover is hand screened by Oliver Peck and you can choose between black or root beer colored vinyl. I got the root beer one and it looks awesome! At $10 a pop, you’d be crazy to pass up this incredible record. Tumbledown’s rowdy, twangy vibe translates perfectly to vinyl and their slower songs sound even more heartbreaking with the faint crackle accompaniment.

Take "State Line" for example. The lazy day rhythm, double acoustics and Mike Herrera's sad vocal make this song feel like a nice throwback to 50's country. Add in the warmth and atmosphere that vinyl offers and you've got yourself the perfect soundtrack to drown your sorrows. Mike and the guys are currently working on recording their next album and hopefully they've got a few more songs like this up their sleeves.

"State Line" - Tumbledown (Tumbledown)

Tumbledown on vinyl can be ordered from Paper + Plastick through the District Lines website here:

http://www.districtlines.com/18466-Tumbledown-Vinyl-Record/Paper-And-Plastick

Here's the root beer colored vinyl. It's translucent too so I held it up to the light for full effect.


Monday, June 14, 2010

"Ready To Start" - Arcade Fire

Looks like Arcade Fire has released a couple more tracks to tide us over until The Suburbs is released. “We Used To Wait” will be the first single in the UK and “Ready To Start” will be the first single here. With the four songs we’ve heard so far, The Suburbs is shaping up to be another incredible album that only a band like Arcade Fire could deliver. The songs are explosive, inventive, passionate and truly one of a kind. “Ready To Start” juxtaposes laid back vocals and a swirling keyboard with driving guitars and a pounding rhythm section. I guarantee this one’ll get the kids dancing at their upcoming shows. I bet even the hipsters will find themselves bobbing their heads along with it. I wouldn’t think that any more songs will come out before the album releases, but we’re lucky enough to have the four we already do to make the wait a little more bearable.

The Suburbs will be released on August 3rd.

"Ready To Start" - Arcade Fire (The Suburbs)

"Ragged Old Flag" - Johnny Cash

Happy Flag Day to you and yours! While I don’t consider myself super patriotic in the conventional definitions, I do feel a great sense of honor and inclusion when I look at our flag. Sure we’ve had a lot of growing pains as a relatively young country and our government’s historical record includes some pretty hefty blemishes, but those aren’t the things we should hold up against the flag. For me, it represents the spirit of the people who live, work and fight underneath its banner. While our government may portray a sense of entitlement, waste resources and get us into unnecessary wars, our flag allows the individuals who keep the country going to have a collective umbrella under which they are bound together. As a kid growing up in Atlanta, every summer I heard Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” as Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis, and Robert E. Lee were animated into motion at the Stone Mountain Laser Show. I understood it, but honestly, it was all a little too cheesy and glossy for me. However, there is one man who knows how to celebrate the flag with honesty and authenticity.

Johnny Cash’s “Ragged Old Flag” came out in 1974 and it’s interesting to see how much times haven’t changed since then. Johnny’s incredible voice makes any topic sound better, but this spoken word song is a narrative between a man in a small, old town and a visitor. The visitor comments on the condition of the town’s flag and the old man proceeds to tell him why the flag looks the way it does. With images evoking America’s major battles and wars, the song reminds us of the struggles and the lives that were lost for the flag and what it represents. The song also deals with the fact that we don’t exactly respect those important things like we should. Back when I was a pudgy, bespectacled young Cub Scout, I remember learning how to properly handle and fold the flag. I remember the way our Scoutmaster explained, not just “how,” but “why” we treat the flag with honor and dignity. I remember the look on his face and the slight quiver in his voice. I also remember feeling the weight of what we were learning and feeling a part of something bigger. I still get reminded of those same feelings every time I hear a song like “Ragged Old Flag.”

"Ragged Old Flag" - Johnny Cash (Ragged Old Flag)

Sunday, June 13, 2010

"Boxer" - The Gaslight Anthem

Thanks to the stellar efforts of Alex at Side One Dummy, my corrected vinyl of American Slang came in quickly. The marbled grey looks gorgeous and is definitely my personal preference over the splatter variant. I posted a picture of it below. It sounds ridiculously good on the thick 180 gram vinyl too!

Even though there’s no word of a commercial single release, it looks like “Boxer” is being sent to radio to promote the album. I think it’s a smart choice. “Boxer” has a catchy guitar riff, a memorable chorus and great lyrics. It’s a good one to catch new people with because the intro is a little reminiscent of The Offspring’s “Come Out and Play” and hopefully it will grab people’s attention enough for them to stick around for the Gaslight goodness. Brian’s lyrics are some of his best on this song too. Lines like “found the bandages inside the pen and the stitches on the radio” and “remember them songs and the reasons we were singing for” call to mind the power of music to heal and inspire. Brian’s unique ability to take complex truths and issues and interpret them into deceptively simple lines speaks a lot to his talents and tastes. Plus, the music amplifies the energy and passion in his writing. “Boxer” is a great example of these ingredients mixing together perfectly.

American Slang will be available this Tuesday, June 15th.

"Boxer" - The Gaslight Anthem (American Slang)



Saturday, June 12, 2010

Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers - Mojo (Album Review)

Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers have been consistently putting out their brand of southern-flavored, all American rock and roll since 1976, so they’ve earned the right to play by their own rules and put out the kind of albums they want to put out. For Mojo, their 18th official release as a band, Tom and the boys have bypassed the radio hooks and big choruses for swampy guitar jams, extended solos and new musical paths they haven’t gone down before. While that means there’s no “American Girl,” “The Waiting” or “Learning To Fly” looking to hit the radio, it does allow the bluesy, psychedelic and experimental aspects of the album to be taken in as a whole. Mojo is more akin to what they did in Mudcrutch (Tom, Mike Campbell, and Benmont Tench’s band before The Heartbreakers) than any of the shimmery, polished hits off Hard Promises or Into The Great Wide Open. Mojo was recorded with the band playing together at the same time with no overdubs or fancy studio tricks to cover anything up. The result is a loose, unencumbered romp that captures a band having fun and creating an album that they themselves would like to hear. Track after track is a reminder that these guys are some of the best and can really play their instruments. Benmont Tench’s keyboard lines provide amazing textures and moods throughout the album. Steve Ferrone’s monster drumming is as tasty and huge as always. Original Heartbreaker Ron Blair is back on bass for his first full album since returning and multi-instrumentalist Scott Thurston skillfully fills in the spaces with harmonica and guitar. The real star of the album though is Mike Campbell’s guitar mastery and he’s given full room to run. Whether he’s firing off roadhouse blues runs, slinky slide solos or slow and smooth passages, his tasteful touches drive the ebb and flow of the songs as they wash over you. The richness of the album is more than just listened to, it is experienced.

Mojo starts off with “Jefferson Jericho Blues,” a fiery, barn burner that playfully mentions Thomas Jefferson’s “midnight creepin’ out to the servant’s shack.” It’s a really fun song and it’s the closest they get to a standard “radio ready” track. From there the album really opens up and diverges. “First Flash of Freedom” and “Takin’ My Time” dabble in Hendrixy, psychedelic blues. “The Trip To Pirate’s Cove” and “Something Good Coming” are swimmy, atmospheric jams. “I Should Have Known It,” “Good Enough” and “U.S. 41” rip with raw, southern rock. They even turn in a folky ballad with “No Reason To Cry.” The biggest surprise on the album though is “Don’t Pull Me Over,” Tom’s first foray into reggae. The instrumentation is spot on and to drive the point home, Tom’s lyrics are about a drug runner’s activities not hurting anyone. There’s even the line “it should be legalized,” which I’m sure will garner a few strong reactions in concert. After you get over the initial “huh?” moment of Tom Petty channeling Bob Marley, you’ll realize that it sounds natural enough and they actually pull it off nicely. On some songs, Tom even lets the loose vibe carry over into his vocal delivery. His playful accents and slurred lines add to the overall unrestrained, easy feeling of the album. If you don’t pick up Mojo looking for another “Here Comes My Girl,” you’ll be pleased to find what is actually there; a broad, interesting album that proves Tom and the boys still know what they’re doing and are still at the top of their game.

Mojo will be released this Tuesday, June 15th.

"I Should Have Known It" - Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers (Mojo)

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

"I'm Alright" - Agent Ribbons

A lot of creative bands like to be described using terms like “out of the box,” “multi-genre,” “beyond labels” or even “undefinable.” While most of them don’t exactly earn such diverse adjectives, Agent Ribbons comes by it honestly. Starting out in Sacramento, CA and recently locating to Austin, TX, Agent Ribbons has created a fun melting pot of retro grooves, impressive instrumentation, girl group harmonies and engaging songwriting. They demand your attention, refuse to follow a formula and take a left turn every time you think you’ve got them pegged. If their quirky and expansive musical repertoire weren’t enough to prove that point, they even drew some lyrical inspiration from the Grey Gardens story for their next release, Chateau Crone.

The first single from Chateau Crone, “I’m Alright,” mixes garage rock rhythms, fuzzed out guitars, hand claps, tambourines, Crystals-esque background vocals and generous helpings of reverb and echo. This song is bright, breezy, and so catchy that it’s hard to listen to without at least a finger or toe tapping along.

Chateau Crone will be released on Antenna Farm Records on October 12th.

"I'm Alright" - Agent Ribbons (Chateau Crone)


Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Cowboy Junkies - Renmin Park (Album Review)

What's a band to do to keep things fresh after 25 years together? While some bands may choose to phone in a greatest hits retrospective, split into solo projects or simply just "pursue other interests," Cowboy Junkies has decided to embark on one of their most creative and prolific times with "The Nomad Series." It's projected to span a book and four albums and Renmin Park is the first release. Inspired by a three month family trip to China, guitarist and principal songwriter Michael Timmins created recordings of the music, sounds and conversations of the people in the city of Jingjiang. These elements were used to augment the bluesy, alt-country vibe of Cowboy Junkies to create a colorful album that tells a love story marred by separation.

Renmin Park opens up with a collage of marching band blasts, snippets of a Chinese folk song, car sounds and the chatter of the city. While it's uncharacteristic for a Cowboy Junkies album, it's used as a great tool to set up this concept album. The Timmins siblings, Margot on vocals, Michael on guitar and Peter on drums, are intent on making sure that, while this album is ambitious and creative, it's still a tried and true Cowboy Junkies album. The first song, "Renmin Park," is unmistakable Cowboy Junkies with Margot's husky, breathy vocals floating above Michael's plaintive acoustic. However, the first line, "Meet me on the banks of the Yangtze," transports the listener to the Chinese setting of the story. The next track, "Sir Francis Bacon At The Net," uses a loop made of group aerobics and a badminton game as the rhythm track for the slow, electric blues jam. "Stranger Here" really picks up the feel of the album and is probably the most accessible. This track could easily show up on a radio playlist or in a movie, but it will most likely find it's home on countless personal summer road trip soundtracks. "A Few Bags Of Grain" addresses China's views on the female gender and was inspired by Michael's trips to the orphanages where two of his daughters were adopted from. It's a heavy topic that is approached with a depth of emotions and a gentle musical paintbrush. Cowboy Junkies also wanted to showcase some of the great Chinese songwriters with covers of "I Cannot Sit Sadly By Your Side" by Zuoxiao Zuzhou and "My Fall" by Xu Wei. These songs are translated into English and prove that great songwriting is not bound by language barriers. When Cowboy Junkies apply their deep musical knowledge and talents to a specific vision and direction, no matter how diverse the topic, the outcome is mesmerizingly rich and ornate. If all you know of Cowboy Junkies is their 1988 cover of The Velvet Underground's "Sweet Jane," you'd be doing yourself, and the band, a disservice to not pick up Renmin Park. Be prepared to be blown away by the beautiful blend of Chinese culture, American music and the universal threads of life, heartache and love.

Renmin Park can be picked up on June 15th through the band's website HERE or through their label, Latent Recordings.

"Sir Francis Bacon At The Net" - Cowboy Junkies (Renmin Park)

Monday, June 7, 2010

The Gaslight Anthem - American Slang (Album Review)

With American Slang, The Gaslight Anthem has once again honed their Jersey soul, punk and rock and roll roots into a powerful album of anthems and dirges. With two full length albums and an EP behind them, The Gaslight Anthem continues to mix the best ingredients of many genres to create something extremely unique and energetic. Even the slower songs have an undercurrent of unrest and drive that keeps them from settling into complacence. In fact, it's in those moments that The Gaslight Anthem really shows their range and talent as they craft eulogies and kiss offs that breathe, release and float off like clouds after a heavy rain. Make no mistake about it though, American Slang is full of high octane, fist pumping music that demands to be sung along to at the top of your lungs.

Frontman Brian Fallon has described the lyrical direction of this album as being more personal and autobiographical than previous albums. While listening to the album, there's no doubt that he has really opened himself up and invites us into territory that he has previously only alluded to. Forgoing metaphors and vagueries, he chooses to drag his stories out of the shadows and asks us all, "you too?" Along side the essential Gaslight themes of love, heartbreak, looking back and moving forward, Brian writes about his relationships and his experience growing up without a father. Not only do I think he is just continuing to mature as a songwriter, I think he is intentionally trying to stand on his own, out from under the weight of his influences and heroes. Almost every review of The Gaslight Anthem mentions Bruce Springsteen or The Clash and it's time that they started getting credit for what they are bringing to the table themselves. American Slang is proof positive that they have earned it.

Although there aren't as many references on American Slang as on their other albums, Brian still tips his hat to those that inspire him and got him into music in the first place. A close listen will uncover little nods to Tom Waits, Jimmy Cliff, Motown, The Clash, The Bible, The Wizard Of Oz, "Please Mr. Postman" and others. The first three songs that open the album, "American Slang," "Stay Lucky" and "Bring It On," all are straight up Gaslight rockers. Their desire to stretch out a little shows up on the soulful, almost Jamaican ska-esque riffs of "The Diamond Church Street Choir" and "The Queen of Lower Chelsea." While "The Spirit Of Jazz"and "Old Haunts" remind you that they know exactly who they are, they sprinkle a few more new ingredients into "Boxer" and "We Did It When We Were Young." With each new musical and lyrical turn, they make it sound like they've been doing it for years. American Slang is the sound of a young man's spirit living in an older man's heart. It's about learning how to accept certain truths and responsibilities, while still remembering the electricity of favorite records and the fireworks of first kisses.

American Slang will be available on June 15th.

"Orphans" - The Gaslight Anthem (
American Slang)

Oddly enough, I received the green/black split vinyl instead of the marbled grey. Oh well, vinyl is vinyl and it still looks pretty cool.


Sunday, June 6, 2010

Twistable, Turnable Man: A Musical Tribute To Shel Silverstein (Album Review)

When I was in first grade, one of my teachers, Mrs. Torbush, opened up my world by introducing me to Shel Silverstein's writings. She had us read through one of his books, "Where The Sidewalk Ends," and come up with our own drawings for it. This book of hilarious, witty and often irreverent poetry sparked something inside me and I went tearing through our school's library looking for more of his stuff. Soon enough I had made my way through "A Light In The Attic," "The Giving Tree" and "A Giraffe and A Half" multiple times. But Shel wasn't only an incredibly talented author, he also wrote some really good songs! He released a number of albums in the 60's and 70's, but other artists took his songs farther than he did. Some of his more notable hits by other people are Dr. Hook and The Medicine Show's version of "The Cover Of The Rolling Stone" and Johnny Cash's version of "A Boy Named Sue."

When I first heard that a Shel Silverstein tribute album was in the works, I got really excited. As the artists and song ideas started being thrown around, it just kept getting better and better. By the time I finally got to hear the finished product, I was blown away. Twistable, Turnable Man absolutely lived up to my expectations. It's such a great album filled with humorous lines and incredible musicianship. The album opens with the beautiful country waltz of My Morning Jacket's "Lullabys, Legends and Lies." They also bookend the album by closing with the funny, yet sadly still relevant, "26 Second Song." Legends like John Prine ("This Guitar Is For Sale"), Ray Price ("Me and Jimmy Rogers") and Kris Kristofferson ("The Winner") take turns offering up simple and gorgeous folky renditions of Shel's works. Not to be outdone, the ladies really shine on the album. Lucinda Williams ("The Ballad of Lucy Jordan"), Sarah Jarosz ("Queen of the Silver Dollar") and Nanci Griffith ("The Giving Tree") all deliver stunning performances and add a beautiful layer of melancholy to their songs. In one of the more special moments on the album, Bobby Bare Jr. sings "Daddy What If" with his daughter Isabella, echoing his own childhood performance of the song with his father on Bobby Bare's 1976 album Lullabys, Legends and Lies. Just to make sure no one gets too comfortable with all the acoustic guitars and laid back tempos, The Boxmasters ("Sylvia's Mother"), Dr. Dog ("The Unicorn Song") and Frank Black and Joey Santiago of Pixies ("The Cover of the Rolling Stone") give Shel's songs the plugged in, full band treatment. Without question, this album is one of the most interesting, exciting and true to form tribute albums I have ever heard.

Twistable, Turnable Man will be released on June 8th.

"The Winner" - Kris Kristofferson (Twistable, Turnable Man)

"The Cover of the Rolling Stone" - Frank Black & Joey Santiago (Twistable, Turnable Man)

Saturday, June 5, 2010

"New York, New York" - Ryan Adams

Songs that are written about real geographical locations can sometimes come across as cheesy or forced. For every "Detroit Rock City," there's a "Viva Las Vegas." Springsteen's "Atlantic City" is gritty and gorgeous but "Kokomo" by The Beach Boys will make you question your faith in mankind. It's a fine line to tread for sure but some artists definitely have the gift to successfully champion their city and still write a great song. "New York, New York" by Ryan Adams is a killer alt-country ode to one of his favorite cities and the homage and references come across easy and authentically. He forgoes shout outs to The Statue of Liberty and The Empire State Building for more subtle nods to the Upper West Side, Avenue A, Avenue B, Houston Street, 3rd Street and 10th Street. Ryan shot a video for "New York, New York" with many shots of the city and him playing the song with New York's iconic skyline prominently featured in the background. The video was shot the Friday before the September 11th terrorists attacks. In the weeks following, MTV, VH1 and CMT played the video pretty heavily as a fitting tribute and memorial.

"New York, New York" - Ryan Adams (Gold)



Friday, June 4, 2010

My Part-Time Cover: "A Letter To Elise"

As a teenager, The Cure impressed me as one of the few bands that was able to successfully bridge the gap between the 80’s and the 90’s. Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Disintegration and Wish are 3 of the strongest consecutive album releases of any band’s catalog and they hit during a rough transition period in the music industry. While bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice In Chains were shoving hair metal out of the way and neighborhood hip-hop was being replaced by hardcore rap, The Cure was happy to stay in the alternative, new wave, gothic, pop bubble they had created for themselves. As unpredictable as they were, every one of their songs and albums was undeniably them. The Cure has always used fluid bass lines, keyboard effects and layers of synths and guitars to create really rich textures and deep moods. I remember being really interested in how they were going to sound when I heard they were going to play MTV Unplugged in 1991. Not only did Robert Smith’s musical genius get solidified by the beautiful acoustic translations of their songs, they even debuted a new song, “A Letter To Elise,” that hadn’t been released yet. Back before internet leaks, this kind of thing was still a big deal. Even in its acoustic form, “A Letter To Elise” sounded very big and melodic. For the version that eventually showed up on Wish the next year, they really filled it out nicely and made it even easier to get lost in.

"A Letter To Elise" - The Cure (Wish)

Before Aaron Sprinkle released his 3rd solo album, Bareface, in 2001, he put out an incredible 6 song EP that is a hands down, must have for any Aaron Sprinkle fan. The Really Something EP contains two singles from Bareface (“Really Something” and “The Patron”), an acoustic version of a Rose Blossom Punch song (“See It In Me”), a track that didn’t make the album (“All That’s Left Of Me”), “Really Something” done acoustically and a cover that’s worth the price of admission on it’s own, The Cure's “A Letter To Elise.” Done with just acoustic and electric guitars, Aaron takes the song in a folk direction and tastefully creates something new with it. His vocals are emotionally on par with Robert’s, which is a feat unto itself, and the whole track has a great vibe to it. I love when musicians from the Northwest try their hand at country-flavored music because it has such a different feel to it than what comes out of Texas and the South. It has such an earthy, rootsy feel to it and I really love listening to songs like that. When a Seattle musician can take a song from the UK and make it sound like it came out of Austin, it makes the musical world feel just a little less disjointed doesn’t it?

"A Letter To Elise" - Aaron Sprinkle (Really Something EP)

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