blackleatherbookshelf: (Flames)
What a Beautiful World We Live In
4 Out Of 5 Stars

After pounding out an R.E.M. sound-alike in 2011 in the form of "The King Is Dead," The Decemberists back up a bit for the more middle of the road "What A Terrible World, What A Wonderful World." There are some subtle changes, like heavier strings and horn charts, which are good. The band that crafted CD long suites now starts off an album with a song where the band apologizes for making a commercial for Axe Shampoo ("The Singer Addresses His Audience"). They know they aren't the same band that cut the masterful "The Crane Wife," and openly admit such.

What they are for "What a Terrible World..." are a crafter of songs. They've found a sweet spot between the ornate structure of those early albums to a sense of pop melody. It makes a love song like "Philomenia" all the more jaunty and "Lake Song" a hip folkie haunter. The band also sound more integrated this time around, where "The King Is Dead" was a showcase for Chris Funk, here, piano dominates many of the songs. Me. I kind of like when they get into that folk vein, as one of my favorites here - Colin Malloy almost making a sea shanty song out of "Better Not Wake The Baby."

"What a Terrible World..." will probably polarize fans who can't get over the fact that the band hit an early peak and then decided to try other things. As for me, I can respect that The Decemberists are not content to stay in one place for every album. Maybe they still aspire to be R.E.M. or even 10,000 Maniacs (some of the poetic lyrics recall the Maniacs'). What ever direction they travel, I am happy to follow as long as the music is this good.



   
blackleatherbookshelf: (Flames)
Richer and Darker
4 Out Of 5 Stars

Natalie Merchant has become more of a rich singer as the years have gone by. Her voice has become more full, her alto voice breathing a deeper mood to her new music on "Natalie Merchant." While deeper moods will likely come as no surprise to her fans (I've been one since seeing 10,000 Maniacs three times), the introspection might be. Gone are the days where she sang poetic socially agitated lyrics atop the Maniacs' new wavish pop, instead, she sings her straightforward poetry in a mix with some truly gorgeous instrumental players.

She's not totally devoid of socially conscious songs, as "Texas" could easily been seen as skewing a certain former president. But it's more mood than anything else she's aiming for. The fork tinged "Seven Deadly Sins" is a perfect example. Stripped to a fairly bare boned structure that slowly builds from acoustic beginnings to slide guitar and ultimately to a martial drum and tastefully played french horn ending, it's adult contemporary music that's for contemporary adults. It's finally at "The End," where Natalie once again touches on the wishful thinking of liberals, that she sings for the final laying down of arms against a 'sea so wide and treacherous,' all while backed with another gorgeously played string section. She may have a touch of grey in her hair as the CD cover depicts, but the elder spokeswoman of "Natalie Merchant" delivers pretty songs that are filled with the most distinct of emotional weight.



   
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Look on The Bright Side
4 Out Of 5 Stars

As a long time fan of James Lee Stanley, I am always excited when he settles in and records a new CD of original songs. He has also kept himself busy, recording duet albums in the "All Wood And..." series, so far mining The Doors and Rolling Stones for source material, Yet it is his solo CD's that I wait for with the greatest hunger. On the new "The Apocaloptimist," he weaves the magic again.

Combining the word apocalypse with the word optimist, he expects the worst and hopes for the best. The character he introduces in the first song is one who lives and sleeps, rises and falls and falls again while "Living The Party Life." Our up and coming yuppie parties when he wins, parties when he loses, and no matter what the result, is ready to party away. PBR in hand, he's probably the best dressed and most annoying person in the room, but James still sings with some sympathy for the guy. Later he hangs out at a bar and sweetly dreams of being rescued at "Last Call."

The character's not a complete yay-hoo. After all, how could he be if he likes Beatles' songs? Coming from the same respectful background as the "All Wood And..." series, "Drive My Car" gives a folk rock makeover to a classic, complete with a tasty harmonica courtesy of Corky Siegel. Or, for that matter, would such a bad man surround himself with great players like Little Feat's Paul Barrere (on slide guitar for "Gypsies In The Hallway")? James' hero may be searching for the best, and this being a story with a happy ending, lets the lead actor fumble his way to understanding with nothing but the best musicianship lighting the way. He comes to a realization about family on "Here We Have My Father," and figures out that maybe it's time to treat his life as something more precious on the strolling "When You Get Right To It."

Coming to terms with when life deals you a decent hand, James' hero ain't such a bad guy in the end. He finds true love during "Any Other Way" and learns the deepest love when singing a "Lullaby for Chloe." James takes our "Apocaloptimist" guy from annoying chump to adoring father in less than an hour, James Lee Stanley is the kind of storyteller who can do this narrative masterfully, and I love when stories have happy endings. Especially when set to music this good.

One more thing: The album's artwork. "The Apocaloptimist's" cover art is poster worthy. It harkens back to the days when the amount of thought given to the entire album package covered the music and how the artwork related to the songs within.


   
blackleatherbookshelf: (Flames)
A Civil End
5 Out Of 5 Stars

It's enough to make you wonder what was going on in the studio during the recording sessions. Joy Williams and John Paul White recorded "The Civil Wars," this delightful sophomore album, then announced they were breaking up just as the album was being released. An “irreconcilable difference of ambition,” the statement reads. Williams even went as far as saying that she and John Paul weren't even on speaking terms. Which is a darn shame because "The Civil Wars" is a graceful, mournful album that gave light to the idea that this duo could have been capable of even greater things.

I also think this was a huge leap forward from the debut, "Barton Hollow." I found that album to be too homogenous. "The Civil Wars" tries several new things (although I could have done without the programmed drums) and the harmonies, like the peaking voices on "From This Valley" are spun gold. They effortlessly mixed Appalachian folk, Smashing Pumpkins and Etta James unto one seamless whole. I never thought of Smashing Pumpkins' "Disarm" as something that could be considered a high lonesome folk song, but they pull it off. It's easier to think of Etta James' "Tell Mama" would work in this setting, and it really is a beautiful reclamation.

The originals are quite good, as well. "I Had Me a Girl" uses a slightly distorted guitar and John Paul's voice to open up a can of worms about the one that got away. Which happens to be the title of the opening song on "The Civil Wars." There's a lot of that to go around on this album. The album closes out with a crystalline "D'arline," which was recorded "on Joy's porch" directly into an I-Phone. It's a farewell song ("if I only knew/where to send this letter to") and a fitting end to a band whose final act was to pull the curtain on such promise.

One can hope that Joy and John Paul can mend the burnt bridges over time, but the breakup sounded pretty acrimonious. Which is probably one of the reasons "The Civil Wars" debuted at number one. Everyone loves a good drama, but the music here carries the day. Combine the two and you have an album that will carry clout over budding folkies everywhere for a long time.



   
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I wanna be Brando in "The Wild One."
3 Out Of 5 Stars

I am having a really hard time with this new fangled album by Ray LaMontagne. Producer Dan Auerbach wandered in and Black Keyed the guy under layers of psychedelia, echo chambered voices and murky sound. And LaMontagne's voice, a buttery tenor that threads a needle between James Taylor and Van Morrison, is held back on the bulk of "Supernova." Ray has such a naturally beautiful voice, it seems a waste to have him sing in whispers and, on "Airwaves," gasping and gulping like a drowning man.

Fortunately, it's Ray's talents that save "Supernova" from being a total bow-wow. The title track rides Ray's singer-songwriter skills with a nifty hook, and he gets to sing in his full voice. The opener, "Lavender" successfully nicks from The Zombies' "Time Of The Season," but finds Ray's voice buried in whispers and reverb. If you're looking for a reason why fans of the guy (I've been a fan since seeing him at the Newport Folk Festival right after "Trouble" was released) have viewed him as a vanguard of the new singer-songwriters, "Supernova's" closing song makes the case. "Drive In Movies" finds Ray wondering about his past, when he and his friends hung out stealing smokes and being "the guy that breaks all the rules, but the cops let him go because they think that he's cool," before admitting that he's old enough to have to buy his cigarettes and whiskey and gaze upon the empty space where his Drive-In used to be. Again, it's also one of the songs where Ray's voice is allowed to rise above the convoluted production and shimmer the way it's supposed to. In fact, as far as the songwriting is concerned, everything here had the potential to come out as great. But there's that production issue again...

I'm a fan of both Ray and The Black Keys, but this was not a match made in heaven. After the fine and even at times funky "God Willin' and The Creek Don't Rise," "Supernova" feels like a miscalculation. If he tours, I hope Ray keeps the Pariah Dogs from his last album on stage and lets these songs take a more natural course.



   
blackleatherbookshelf: (Flames)
Writing Their Own Story
3 Out Of 5 Stars

I first caught American Authors via a commercial for the MLB Fan Cave which used "Best Day Of My Life" as the background music. It was so happy and infectious that I had to Shazam the commercial to find out the artist. That, in turn, lead me to the American Authors and their debut CD "Oh, What a Life."

As seems to be the trend these days, folk tendencies are the next big thing and American Authors lean in that direction. "Luck" (as in 'I make my own...') is pretty good pop, as well. In fact, if you take away the acoustics and factor in their creamy harmonies ("Think About It," "Love"), these guys could easily pass as a boy band. That's meant as a compliment, as the hooks are catchy and the melodies exude pure pop instincts. You'll get that on the playful (and more electric) "Hit It."

Just as a warning, "Best Day of My Life" is the best thing here, and if you bought their debut EP, all 5 of those songs are there so you'll be paying for half of "Oh, What a Life" twice. But for the moment, I'll indulge in "Best Days" and eagerly await the follow-up to see where American Authors head next.



   
blackleatherbookshelf: (Flames)
Who needs love when you've got silicon and strap ons?
4 Out Of 5 Stars

Passnger (aka Mike Rosenberg) are the latest entry it to the singer songwriter as unabashed folkie that has given us some stellar material of late, and "All The Little Lights" is his breakthrough fifth album. Rosenberg is a charming, heartfelt vocalist, albeit one with a wavery voice that all but labels itself as 'earnest.' His specialties are songs about fragile relationships, and the album is loaded with heartbreaks. The main single, "Let Her Go" hit the collective consciousness via the Budweiser commercial where the puppy and the Clydesdale are best friends, and it's kind of hard to miss out on a song as catchy as that one with a commercial as emotionally potent. It's what lead me to "All The Little Lights" to start with,

The remainder is almost as rewarding. While the songs are primarily about relationships and their trials, Rosenberg has a wicked sense of humor, as the lyrical line I pulled from the song "Staring At The Stars" to become the title of this review points out. "The Wrong Direction" is also a lighthearted romp with a nice horn solo (and reminded me a lot of Ed Sheeran). You also get a broader look at his humorous side in the bonus live track, "I Hate," which couples a sing along chorus with a list of things that Rosenberg, well, hates. These include porta-potties, teen-mags and The X Factor while the crowd sha-la-la's along.

"All The Little Lights" walks the balance well. A bit more solid than Sheeran's debut and less bombastic than the likes of Mumford and Sons, Passenger is equal parts delicate and powerful, and "Let her Go" is just a cherry on the top.


   
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The Boss Meets The Nightwatchman
4 Out Of 5 Stars

A mixed bag of Springsteen odds and ends that is a surprisingly full album. Bruce Springsteen's "High Hopes" dug into his backlog of songs that features new material cut with Rage Against The Machine (and soloman Nightwatchman) Tom Morello, at the same time uncovering material that the late Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici were party to. The sum total of your enjoyment will depend on your fandom of Springsteen; for me, this cherry picked set of odds and sods is a better album than "Magic" and "Working On A Dream."

The songs are all powerful, even if the album is a little disjointed. The much ballyhooed appearances of Morello seem limited to spurts of guitar firepower (the re-reording of "American Skin (41 Shots)") and a hotshot solo or two (the soulful "Raise Your Hand"). He makes his presence most felt on the reworking of "The Ghost Of Tom Joad," adding both a sung verse and a steamy guitar solo to this song of lost souls that gets a much louder workout than Springsteen's original recording. It's one of the album's highlights.

Among the album's oddities, the reconstruction of minimalist synth-punk band Suicide's "Dream Baby Dream" plays out remarkably well. Springsteen sings with particular longing as the song builds to a multi-layered conclusion. It's a far cry from the original's origins, but Springsteen makes it his own. The other cover comes from Australia's pioneer band The Saints, "Just Like Fire Would," but is nowhere near the revelation "Dream Baby Dream" turns into.

"High Hopes" works best when Springsteen plays to his usual strengths, a little bit of soul, some lost strangers epic ("Frankie Fell In Love") or terrific story songs (the gangster's hangout of "Harry's Place," which contains more of Morello's guitar work). I can recommend this to fans of Bruce, only slightly to folks thinking Morello would be more electric. Morello may have been Springsteen's muse on "High Hopes" (as he's suggested in interviews), but this is still Springsteen's record. And ultimately, a pretty good one.


   
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The Rumbling Undertones of Folk Rock
3 Out Of 5 Stars

Tao Rodriguez Seeger is the grandson (in-law) of the late icon Pete Seeger, and has been serving as his Grandfather's musical director on Pete's latest tours. That was where I first heard Tao play, at Newport Folk Festival in 2009. About a year later, Tao performed a solo-band set at Philadelphia's World cafe, We enjoyed his work at Newport so much that I decided to check him out. As you would likely guess by his affiliations with Pete, Tao is a folk-lefty. What I (and I think, most of the other attendees) did not expect, is that Tao is a LOUD folk lefty. Where Bruce Springsteen's "Seeger Sessions" covered Pete like it was a hootenanny, Tao makes Pete sound like The Clash. While he's not hitting the punk rock stills on "The Anarchist Orchestra," you can feel that he's ready to.




Rodríguez-Seeger and Jake Silver also perform together in The Mammals, here they team up with Laura Cortese and Robin McMillan. This 7 song EP melds folk and bluegrass with some hard rock undertones. "Fascist State Breakdown" sticks to the hootenanny, but don't be fooled. It comes just before a feedback and echo-laden "Roving Gambler." This is a record that likes its guitars as much as it digs those fiddles. It's a good introduction to what these somewhat radical folkies can do, although I'd recommend "Rise and Bloom," billed as the Tao Seeger Band, but is the same band line-up, and is a more enjoyable/focused album.


   
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Take a Trip to Shangri La
4 Out Of 5 Stars

The latest in "new Dylan" wunderkinds is 19 year old Jake Bugg, a Brit who sounds like he popped out of the Greenwich Village clubs with his enigma fully intact and a sophomore album called "Shangri La." And yes, that's a compliment. He's plugged in and has Rick Rubin on his team to peel back any unnecessary varnish that might have gotten stuck to the kid had anyone tried to polish him up. He's such a young gun that his voice even sounds like it has acne. That nasal bleat on "There's a Beast and We All Feed It" could only come from someone too young to realize that he hasn't conquered the world just yet, but old enough to think that it should be listening to his every pronouncement.

Jake Bugg can run the gamut from that hard chugging opener to the more introspective "Me and You."

"All these people want us to fail
But I won't let that happen now."

He sings this line like he's a knight coming to a rescue. The kid excels in earnestness. The closest I can recall another album that believed in itself so definitively was Ryan Adams when he released "Gold," and I like "Shangri La" so much more than that album. His age is not a hindrance as he tackles some adult themes on "Storm Passes Away," along with a decent pedal steel, or the street denizens of "Messed Up Kids."

There is a lot of raw talent on "Shangri La," and it's good to hear a young talent that isn't spun off the hit-making machinery of some TV Talent contest. You may have to get past the nasal twang in the young man's voice (which is why he wouldn't have lasted an audition for the likes of "American Idol"), but give yourself an opportunity and you'll hear what sounds to me like a first class singer-songwriter on the way up. Jake Bugg is the real deal.


   
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Peace, Love and Banjos
4 Out Of 5 Stars

Barely a year after releasing the acclaimed "The Carpenter," The Avett Brothers make a quick turnaround and issue "Magpie and The Dandelion." Along with producer Rick Rubin, The Avetts have mastered a style of folk-rock that many other bands of this ilk are just trying to grasp. Other than Mumford and Sons, The Avett Brothers have no one else that even come close to matching their own kind of American Roots rock, which makes it all the more interesting that Mumford and Sons are Irish, while the brothers hail from North Carolina.

That's not the only difference. Where the Mumfords typically strive for the bombastic crescendo, the Avetts deal in a more gentle style. Piano melodies intermingle with the banjos, and they have long ago learned that a silence can speak more than an amp turned up to 11. They're also not as preachy, even if the music speaks to universal love and faith. They sing of having an "Open Ended Life" and delicately contemplate "Souls With Wheels" (a live version of the song originally from the EP "The Second Gleam"). Sometimes doubt creeps in, like the long distance affair "Apart From Me," where Scott and Seth Avett question if they can keep love alive while out on the road. Same with "Skin and Bones," but this time with more spunk.

If I have any grumps about "Magpie And The Dandelion," it's that there doesn't seem to be much of a growth in the band. The songs here sound like they were very good, but not so good as to end up on "The Carpenter." Why else tease everyone with an older live song in the middle than to be a song or two short of a totally new album? But then, you'll hear the piano copping from The Beatles' "Norwegian Wood" on the midtempo ballad "Good To You," and you can forgive them the lateral move. Also, as previously stated, no other band can keep up with the new folk movement the way The Avett Brothers do. If you prefer, think of "Magpie" and "The Carpenter" as a double album. Play them in tandem. Together, they're a delight, and even with my few misgivings, "Magpie and The Dandelion" is an excellent album.


   
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Climb Every Mountain
4 Out Of 5 Stars

While Amos Lee has always mixed his blues with a healthy dose of folk music, "Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song" sounds like his folkiest album yet. There's still plenty of blues, like the vocal of "Stranger," but the backing of banjo belies the new folk underground running through this album. Then there's the backward guitar solo. Lee is having his cake and eating it. He approached this a bit on "Mission Bell," singing with the likes of Willie Nelson should have made that point obvious, but now it's more forward.

His brand of roots rocking is a potpourri of styles, and Nashville, where Lee and his band recorded "Mountains of Sorrow," weighs in heaviest this time. His guests magnify the area code as well, with Alison Krauss on "Chill In The Air" and Patty Griffin on the title track adding some high lonesome harmonies. But it's not all - to take from the album title - rivers of sorrow. The Dylan-esque and playful "Tricksters, Hucksters and Scamps" shows a sense of humor. Nor is Lee afraid of the new technology with the keyboard heavy "Loretta," and the horns that funk up "The Man Who Wants You."





I like "Mountains of Sorrow" just a tad less than I enjoyed "Mission Bell" (which I rated 5 stars in a previous review). But with his soulful voice delving still in the blues and folk elements that he's so good with, Amos Lee's "Mountain of Sorrow, Rivers of Song" is a solid album from a man who does Philadelphia (and this time, Nashville), proud.


    
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No Better, Really
2 Out Of 5 Stars

Back in 2008, I gave John Mellencamp's "Life Death Love and Freedom" a four star rating. He mixed up his styles enough to keep the disc from becoming flat, and added a few hopeful songs like "My Sweet Love." A few years later and that hope is sucked clean out of "No Better Than This." Recorded in mono at several classic locations (mainly Sun Studios in Memphis), Mellencamp is going for a starker sound than before, even more bare bones that "Life Death" or his madly underrated "Big Daddy." It's just that, as spartan as the CD is, the songs aren't all that memorable or inspiring. He may want to be a classical folkie, but it just isn't there. You can record in Room 414 of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, TX, where Robert Johnson recorded "Stones in My Passway" in 1936, but that doesn't mean you've been to the crossroads.

The idea of the CD is interesting enough; Mellencamp recorded "No Better Than This" while touring with one microphone, directly onto a vintage Ampex 601 tape recorder, no remixing or overdubs. It does give the album a sense of immediacy, but not warmth. Just because you're making an album the way Johnny Cash or the rest of the Sun studio cats, he's still Mellencamp. Some of the songs are vintage lyrical Mellencamp, like "No One Cares About Me," the closing "Clumsy Ol' World" and the bar brawl that he narrates in "Easter Eve." It's just me, but I really yearned to hear Mellencamp do "Clumsy Ol' World" and maybe "Save Some Time For Me" with a full band and in a modern setting.

As it is, "No Better Than This" can't elevate itself to more than a curiosity in Mellencamp's storied discography, and you have to hand it to the man, he's long ago decided he's going to follow his muse to any place it leads him. Having pretty much given up on rock and roll, "No Better Than This" will likely only please die-hard Mellencamp followers, extreme folkies, or lovers of what T-Bone Burnette does to artists when he turns his producer's cap towards stripping his subjects musically naked.


   
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No Better, Really
2 Out Of 5 Stars

Back in 2008, I gave John Mellencamp's "Life Death Love and Freedom" a four star rating. He mixed up his styles enough to keep the disc from becoming flat, and added a few hopeful songs like "My Sweet Love." A few years later and that hope is sucked clean out of "No Better Than This." Recorded in mono at several classic locations (mainly Sun Studios in Memphis), Mellencamp is going for a starker sound than before, even more bare bones that "Life Death" or his madly underrated "Big Daddy." It's just that, as spartan as the CD is, the songs aren't all that memorable or inspiring. He may want to be a classical folkie, but it just isn't there. You can record in Room 414 of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, TX, where Robert Johnson recorded "Stones in My Passway" in 1936, but that doesn't mean you've been to the crossroads.

The idea of the CD is interesting enough; Mellencamp recorded "No Better Than This" while touring with one microphone, directly onto a vintage Ampex 601 tape recorder, no remixing or overdubs. It does give the album a sense of immediacy, but not warmth. Just because you're making an album the way Johnny Cash or the rest of the Sun studio cats, he's still Mellencamp. Some of the songs are vintage lyrical Mellencamp, like "No One Cares About Me," the closing "Clumsy Ol' World" and the bar brawl that he narrates in "Easter Eve." It's just me, but I really yearned to hear Mellencamp do "Clumsy Ol' World" and maybe "Save Some Time For Me" with a full band and in a modern setting.

As it is, "No Better Than This" can't elevate itself to more than a curiosity in Mellencamp's storied discography, and you have to hand it to the man, he's long ago decided he's going to follow his muse to any place it leads him. Having pretty much given up on rock and roll, "No Better Than This" will likely only please die-hard Mellencamp followers, extreme folkies, or lovers of what T-Bone Burnette does to artists when he turns his producer's cap towards stripping his subjects musically naked.


     


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Roots Rocking of a Different Kind
4 Out Of 5 Stars

Ian Anderson always had a minstrel's soul, yet in all of Jethro Tull's discography, it wasn't laid bare until "Songs From The Wood." Martin Barre's electric guitar is turned off or down with the exception of one song, while Anderson conducts the ceremonies with his ever present lilting flute and eclectic lyrics.

"Let me bring you songs from the wood,
to make you feel much better than you could know."

Calling listeners into a quite countryside with this a Capella couplet, and then sing wistfully about getting back to the countryside. Come with them and visit such characters as "Jack In The Green," they cheerfully beckon. Follow "The Whistler," who might was well be Anderson himself, as he plays his fife while strolling through the fields. Join in the sense of medieval England, with songs that are as far away from the proggy world of "Thick as a Brick" or the rocking semi-autobiographical "Too Old To Rock And Roll, Too Young To Die!" as possible. The band sounds looser and less yoked in than they have since the earlier albums sported their side-long spunky epics.

The one time that the electric guitar rings out is on "Pibroch (Cap In Hand)," which begins and ends with Barre's echo-laden guitars before Anderson assumes control with his flute. It's also "Songs From the Wood's" longest song and most reminiscent of past work, slipping in and out of folk, jazzy passages and the rock of Barre and Anderson's dueling solos. It's a little out of place, but hardly a misstep. That honor goes to "Ring Out Solstice Bells," which stumbles over its lightweight lyrics. Oddly enough, this song became an unlikely hit in the UK.

Those songs not withstanding, "Songs From The Wood" is a delightful mix of fields and forest, and one of Tull's most enjoyable albums. They must have thought so as well, as the follow-up "Heavy Horses" and much of "Storm Watch" would stay on the same pathway.


   
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Roots Rocking of a Different Kind
4 Out Of 5 Stars

Ian Anderson always had a minstrel's soul, yet in all of Jethro Tull's discography, it wasn't laid bare until "Songs From The Wood." Martin Barre's electric guitar is turned off or down with the exception of one song, while Anderson conducts the ceremonies with his ever present lilting flute and eclectic lyrics.

"Let me bring you songs from the wood,
to make you feel much better than you could know."

Calling listeners into a quite countryside with this a Capella couplet, and then sing wistfully about getting back to the countryside. Come with them and visit such characters as "Jack In The Green," they cheerfully beckon. Follow "The Whistler," who might was well be Anderson himself, as he plays his fife while strolling through the fields. Join in the sense of medieval England, with songs that are as far away from the proggy world of "Thick as a Brick" or the rocking semi-autobiographical "Too Old To Rock And Roll, Too Young To Die!" as possible. The band sounds looser and less yoked in than they have since the earlier albums sported their side-long spunky epics.

The one time that the electric guitar rings out is on "Pibroch (Cap In Hand)," which begins and ends with Barre's echo-laden guitars before Anderson assumes control with his flute. It's also "Songs From the Wood's" longest song and most reminiscent of past work, slipping in and out of folk, jazzy passages and the rock of Barre and Anderson's dueling solos. It's a little out of place, but hardly a misstep. That honor goes to "Ring Out Solstice Bells," which stumbles over its lightweight lyrics. Oddly enough, this song became an unlikely hit in the UK.

Those songs not withstanding, "Songs From The Wood" is a delightful mix of fields and forest, and one of Tull's most enjoyable albums. They must have thought so as well, as the follow-up "Heavy Horses" and much of "Storm Watch" would stay on the same pathway.


     


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When Thompson was on a roll
5 Out Of 5 Stars

In 1988, Capitol took a roll of the dice and signed Richard Thompson to an American record deal. Thompson had several brushes with success, and had skipped across several smaller labels, all while seeing that breakthrough always just seemingly out of reach. Someone at Hollywood and Vine must have seen this as an opportunity, and five studio albums ensued. With the promotional wheels of Capitol behind him, Thompson suddenly found his albums creeping into the top hundred, and the man himself on a serious creative roll. "Action Packed" is a superb collection that skims the cream from those albums and adds a new track.

Starting with "Amnesia" and going through "You? Me? Us?," Thompson was matched to producer Mitchell Froom, who seemed perfectly aligned towards Thompson's playing and songwriting. To his credit, Thompson embraced the style and finessed it, delivering some remarkable songs and his usual killer guitar playing. I challenge anyone to listen to "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" and not come away with the opinion that it is simply one of the best folk songs ever written or to hear "I Feel Good" and miss it's cynical bite. Those are just a pair of the classic songs on "Action Packed," balancing semi-rock songs with tenderly played pieces like "Beeswing." His final Capitol disc, "Mock Tudor," produced by Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf, and still had Froom on keyboards

Thompson has always had a soft spot for writing about the down-trodden, and there are a few of those here, as well. "Mr. Rebound" describes the woe of a man who always seems to be the fall-back when the women of his dreams needs a fling with somebody new. Then's there's "Waltzing's For Dreamers," in it's stately 3/4 time as Thompson describes each of the three steps of breaking his heart. The bonus tracks are no slouches, either, when you consider that they are usually the stuff of B-sides. The softly seductive "Persuasion" (co-written by Split Enz' Tim Finn) is cast as a ballad featuring his son, Teddy. "Mr Rebound" and "Fully Qualified to Be Your Man" were unavailable on CD prior to "Action Packed" and were recorded for "Mock Tudor."

Thompson has been making brilliant songs for so many years that it's difficult to recommend single CD's without busting your wallet. But for a blazing period between 1988 and 1999, he ran a streak of strong albums, and "Action Packed" pulls that decade into an enjoyably listenable single CD experience.


     
blackleatherbookshelf: (Flames)
Tempering The Rage, Unslaving The Audio
3 Out Of 5 Stars

Tom Morello's first album under his Nightwatchman persona was out to destroy his old reputation as an electric guitar gunslinger for Rage Against The Machine and Audioslave. While he keeps the political bent of RATM in full blast, he's decided that a whisper will work better than a scream. So now he's channeling Woody Guthrie, Pete Seger and Bruce Springsteen ala "Ghost of Tom Joad." This is one wicked lefty political diatribe, and Morello is relishing the part.

I really enjoy what Morello is doing with this phase of his career. I've seen him live twice now, and he's got one charismatic stage presence. However, his songwriting here is not as good as the albums that followed. While I do not underestimate his commitment to this new-found folk music, there's only about half that really catch fire. There's too many songs that merely offer up slogans instead of songs, an issue that he'd overcome in spades by "The Fabled City" a couple of years later.




It's the songs that hit the bulls-eye that really impress. The title song blasts through any complacency the acoustic guitar based songs might lull you into. "The Gardens of Gethsemane" is a powerful narrative of a revolutionary on the prowl, haunted by "I've seen the things I should not see." Offering no viewpoint, you have to ascertain for yourself what kind of man he's singing about. With a haunting guitar whispering behind Morello's strumming, it packs a velvet wallop. "One Man Revolution" needed more of these songs. Like I also said, by "The Fabled City," his songwriting had evolved to the point where every song was an acoustic hand grenade. I'll recommend this to current fans of the likes of Steve Earle or Billy Bragg, but better was on the way.



   
blackleatherbookshelf: (Flames)

When Boomtown goes to Bust
5 Out Of 5 Stars

David Baerwald had had enough of your s#-t and was going to make sure you knew it. "Triage" is a cynical masterwork, his best album, and one to get angry about. It may have been released in 1992, chronicling the mess that was the Reagan administration, the rise of AIDS, the fall of the middle class, sometimes all in one song. Inciteful (not a typo) and musically beautiful, "Triage" may have been too overwhelming for the times. But oddly enough, that anger still feels relevant today.

Starting of with the cinematic 8 minutes of "A Secret Silken World," in which he asks "Don't you love to hurt the weak when they refuse to fight?" then details a rich person's complaints about being out and about in Beverly Glen on a "lazy kind of night" ("all those hungry people, such a drag. Let's get something to eat"). Sound familiar? As I write this, it's 28 years after Live Aid and just a few days after House Republicans voted to eliminate Food Stamps. The view from the top hasn't changed all that much.

Then there's the vitriolic "The Got No Shotgun Hydrahead Octopus Blues," which Baerwald was opinionated enough and felt so strongly for that he issued it as a single. Or the talking blues the drug war in "Nobody" or the fearful "AIDS and Armageddon."

The day she tried to kill me
She said you know You're gonna die
I said yeah but not yet.

The line in the song that says "I don't want to talk about it" could have cut two ways, in the Reagan years of denial or of the lover who worries that he may have contracted it, but was terrified of the sex that gave it to him. A thing that was all too real a feeling in the '90's. Which corresponds to the fact that the first thing up in the next song, where a recording of the introduction of the president, then leads into "The Postman," the album's gentlest song.

It's a moment of respite on a relentless CD. It's only at the end does Baerwald find some redemption for the ugly world he's just sang 9 songs about in "Born For Love." Make no mistake, however. "Triage" is as intense a singer's album as the 90's ever produced. Like I said earlier; what Baerwald felt with such vehemence then still sounds timely now.


   
blackleatherbookshelf: (Default)
There's More Than One Way to Roll a Stone
5 Out Of 5 Stars

For the third CD in their "All Wood And..." series, singer songwriter James Lee Stanley teams up with past collaborator John Batdorf and takes another dip in the deep well of Mick Jagger/Keith Richards compositions. The previous effort, "All Wood and Doors" (James with Cliff Eberhardt) was so well conceived that Doors members John Densmore and Robby Krieger pitched in on the effort, and while Keith and Mick didn't join in the proceedings, "All Wood and Stones II" is done with the same amount of respect as James and John did on the previous effort.

What happens here is that James and John take songs you've heard a million times over and turn them inside out, folk-wise. That's not to say that you'll never recognize what songs are here, but you will notice some angles that you may not have before. "Get Off Of My Cloud" still has the playful call and response Hey! You! hook, but it still sports a neatly strummed arrangement. "Honky Tonk Woman" sounds more like an actual honky-tonk song. These are sung primarily by John, whose rough hewn voice nicely compliments James' clearer sound. It makes for some terrific harmonizing ("Time is On My Side").

My favorite is when they do a total reconstruction on the 1978 disco thumper, "Miss You." Slowed down and minus the dance beat, "Miss You" becomes a bluesier lament for an absent lover. Interestingly enough, the other song arrangement that I enjoy also comes from "Some Girls," Richards' personal recounting of his drug misadventures with the law, "Before They Make Me Run." In my opinion, it's the biggest surprise on "All Wood and Stones II." It's worth making it a two-pack with 2005's "All Wood and Stones."


     


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