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)
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.

blackleatherbookshelf: (Flames)
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)
An excellent overview of an American Icon
5 Out Of 5 Stars

At 36 tracks across two discs, "The Essential Pete Seeger" pretty much invalidates other, older compilations and sum up his time on Columbia Records. While Seeger was still recording albums into his 80's, this takes the prime period of his recordings and spreads it out.

Pete Seeger was an icon for all the best reasons. Picking up a banjo and guitar to makes statements about the nature of the times took courage then as it does now (quick, name on popular artist who uses his recorded output for challenging statements...could you?) and even got him blacklisted. Songs like "Talking Union" or the anti-Vietnam protest "Waist Deep In The Big Muddy," he not only found himself surrounded by controversy but actively courting it. He was the rare artist to put his beliefs before his career, even as it threatened his livelihood and even though he would ultimately be vindicated.

You'll also find the songs that Pete wrote or adapted that became hits for others, such as "Turn Turn Turn" (The Byrds), "If I Had a Hammer" (Peter, Paul and Mary), and "Guantanamera" (Trini Lopez). With both the adaptations of "Guantanamera" and "Wimoweh," a strong argument can be made the Seeger was one of the earliest purveyors of what everyone now calls "World Music," as he had the forethought to include them in he live concerts (and are both here as live versions).

Even with those convictions, Pete Seeger also approached his music with a wit and sense of humor. "Little Boxes" is a stinging indictment of class conformity, yet it's actually a pretty funny song. Same with "Talking Union." But there's no escaping the anger that underscores "Which Side are You On?" What will remain his lasting legacy encompasses songs like these, but the gentle heart that could deliver a searing protest of war ("Where Have All The Flowers Gone") along side the civil rights anthem of peace in "We Shall Overcome."

I was fortunate enough to see Seeger live at the 50th Anniversary of The Newport Festival. Even at his advanced age, his body may have been frail but his voice was a force of nature. Like all his best work, he was the conduit for the music and the audience, leading call and response verses and choruses till the throngs of people that filled the field sang in unison. Even typing this now brings back chills. Few artists can lay claim to making culture bend in their direction, and Pete Seeger is such a man. While even two discs of music is incomplete (no "Good Night Irene"?) but this set is as easy an instant collection for a man whose greatness will remain an influence not just on artists still taking cues from him today, but those who will come along.

blackleatherbookshelf: (Flames)
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.

blackleatherbookshelf: (Flames)
From Billboard Magazine: (The picture is one I took at The Newport Folk Festival's 50th Anniversary.)

Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger, the banjo-picking troubadour who sang for migrant workers, college students and star-struck presidents in a career that introduced generations of Americans to their folk music heritage, died on Monday at the age of 94.

Seeger's grandson, Kitama Cahill-Jackson said his grandfather died at New York Presbyterian Hospital, where he'd been for six days. "He was chopping wood 10 days ago," he said.

Seeger - with his a lanky frame, banjo and full white beard - was an iconic figure in folk music. He performed with the great minstrel Woody Guthrie in his younger days and marched with Occupy Wall Street protesters in his 90s, leaning on two canes. He wrote or co-wrote "If I Had a Hammer," "Turn, Turn, Turn," "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" and "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine." He lent his voice against Hitler and nuclear power. A cheerful warrior, he typically delivered his broadsides with an affable air and his banjo strapped on.

"Be wary of great leaders," he told The Associated Press two days after a 2011 Manhattan Occupy march. "Hope that there are many, many small leaders."

With The Weavers, a quartet organized in 1948, Seeger helped set the stage for a national folk revival. The group - Seeger, Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman - churned out hit recordings of "Goodnight Irene," "Tzena, Tzena" and "On Top of Old Smokey."

Seeger also was credited with popularizing "We Shall Overcome," which he printed in his publication "People's Song," in 1948. He later said his only contribution to the anthem of the civil rights movement was changing the second word from "will" to "shall," which he said "opens up the mouth better."

"Every kid who ever sat around a campfire singing an old song is indebted in some way to Pete Seeger," Arlo Guthrie once said.

His musical career was always braided tightly with his political activism, in which he advocated for causes ranging from civil rights to the cleanup of his beloved Hudson River. Seeger said he left the Communist Party around 1950 and later renounced it. But the association dogged him for years.

He was kept off commercial television for more than a decade after tangling with the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955. Repeatedly pressed by the committee to reveal whether he had sung for Communists, Seeger responded sharply: "I love my country very dearly, and I greatly resent this implication that some of the places that I have sung and some of the people that I have known, and some of my opinions, whether they are religious or philosophical, or I might be a vegetarian, make me any less of an American."

He was charged with contempt of Congress, but the sentence was overturned on appeal.

Seeger called the 1950s, years when he was denied broadcast exposure, the high point of his career. He was on the road touring college campuses, spreading the music he, Guthrie, Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter and others had created or preserved.

"The most important job I did was go from college to college to college to college, one after the other, usually small ones," he told The Associated Press in 2006. " ... And I showed the kids there's a lot of great music in this country they never played on the radio."

His scheduled return to commercial network television on the highly rated Smothers Brothers variety show in 1967 was hailed as a nail in the coffin of the blacklist. But CBS cut out his Vietnam protest song, "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy," and Seeger accused the network of censorship.

He finally got to sing it five months later in a stirring return appearance, although one station, in Detroit, cut the song's last stanza: "Now every time I read the papers/That old feelin' comes on/We're waist deep in the Big Muddy/And the big fool says to push on."

Seeger's output included dozens of albums and single records for adults and children.

He also was the author or co-author of "American Favorite Ballads," "The Bells of Rhymney," "How to Play the Five-String Banjo," "Henscratches and Flyspecks," "The Incompleat Folksinger," "The Foolish Frog" and "Abiyoyo," "Carry It On," "Everybody Says Freedom" and "Where Have All the Flowers Gone."

He appeared in the movies "To Hear My Banjo Play" in 1946 and "Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon" in 1970. A reunion concert of the original Weavers in 1980 was filmed as a documentary titled "Wasn't That a Time."

By the 1990s, no longer a party member but still styling himself a communist with a small C, Seeger was heaped with national honors.

Official Washington sang along - the audience must sing, was the rule at a Seeger concert - when it lionized him at the Kennedy Center in 1994. President Clinton hailed him as "an inconvenient artist who dared to sing things as he saw them."

Seeger was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996 as an early influence. Ten years later, Bruce Springsteen honored him with "We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions," a rollicking reinterpretation of songs sung by Seeger. While pleased with the album, Seeger said he wished it was "more serious." A 2009 concert at Madison Square Garden to mark Seeger's 90th birthday featured Springsteen, Dave Matthews, Eddie Vedder and Emmylou Harris among the performers.

Seeger was a 2014 Grammy Awards nominee in the Best Spoken Word category, which was won by Stephen Colbert.

Seeger's sometimes ambivalent relationship with rock was most famously on display when Dylan "went electric" at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival.

Witnesses say Seeger became furious backstage as the amped-up band played, though just how furious is debated. Seeger dismissed the legendary tale that he looked for an ax to cut Dylan's sound cable, and said his objection was not to the type of music but only that the guitar mix was so loud you couldn't hear Dylan's words.

Seeger maintained his reedy 6-foot-2 frame into old age, though he wore a hearing aid and conceded that his voice was pretty much shot. He relied on his audiences to make up for his diminished voice, feeding his listeners the lines and letting them sing out.

"I can't sing much," he said. "I used to sing high and low. Now I have a growl somewhere in between."

Nonetheless, in 1997 he won a Grammy for best traditional folk album, "Pete."

Seeger was born in New York City on May 3, 1919, into an artistic family whose roots traced to religious dissenters of colonial America. His mother, Constance, played violin and taught; his father, Charles, a musicologist, was a consultant to the Resettlement Administration, which gave artists work during the Depression. His uncle Alan Seeger, the poet, wrote "I Have a Rendezvous With Death."

Pete Seeger said he fell in love with folk music when he was 16, at a music festival in North Carolina in 1935. His half brother, Mike Seeger, and half sister, Peggy Seeger, also became noted performers.

He learned the five-string banjo, an instrument he rescued from obscurity and played the rest of his life in a long-necked version of his own design. On the skin of Seeger's banjo was the phrase, "This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender" - a nod to his old pal Guthrie, who emblazoned his guitar with "This machine kills fascists."

Dropping out of Harvard in 1938 after two years as a disillusioned sociology major, he hit the road, picking up folk tunes as he hitchhiked or hopped freights.

"The sociology professor said, `Don't think that you can change the world. The only thing you can do is study it,'" Seeger said in October 2011.

In 1940, with Guthrie and others, he was part of the Almanac Singers and performed benefits for disaster relief and other causes.

He and Guthrie also toured migrant camps and union halls. He sang on overseas radio broadcasts for the Office of War Information early in World War II. In the Army, he spent 3 1/2 years in Special Services, entertaining soldiers in the South Pacific, and made corporal.

Pete and Toshi Seeger were married July 20, 1943. The couple built their cabin in Beacon after World War II and stayed on the high spot of land by the Hudson River for the rest of their lives together. The couple raised three children. Toshi Seeger died in July at age 91.

The Hudson River was a particular concern of Seeger. He took the sloop Clearwater, built by volunteers in 1969, up and down the Hudson, singing to raise money to clean the water and fight polluters.

He also offered his voice in opposition to racism and the death penalty. He got himself jailed for five days for blocking traffic in Albany in 1988 in support of Tawana Brawley, a black teenager whose claim of having been raped by white men was later discredited. He continued to take part in peace protests during the war in Iraq, and he continued to lend his name to causes.

"Can't prove a damn thing, but I look upon myself as old grandpa," Seeger told the AP in 2008 when asked to reflect on his legacy. "There's not dozens of people now doing what I try to do, not hundreds, but literally thousands. ... The idea of using music to try to get the world together is now all over the place."

blackleatherbookshelf: (Flames)
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.

blackleatherbookshelf: (Flames)
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.

blackleatherbookshelf: (Flames)
DNA Splicing
4 Out Of 5 Stars

"Wise Up Ghost." In which two of the music world's encyclopedic nerds play with Costello's past and Questlove's concepts of pop and funk. Musically it is a fascinating record, with the two of them combining bits of Elvis' older tunes with deeply funked out basslines, boiling things to a rare essence; the songs that equal or surpass the originals.

For example, just as deep as the second song, sample lyrics from "Sweet Underground" and "Hurry Down Doomsday" are tangled together to create "Sugar Won't Work." Or how "Stick Out Your Tongue" rewrites "Pills and Soap," one of Costello's angriest protest songs. Which is something else to note about "Wise Up Ghost." The Roots place a lot of dark menace into songs that weren't as sinister as they were when they started out life.

Even the samples spin things around. The tinkling piano of "Satellite" tease "Tripwire" into a more spooky area, along with the subject matter. Questlove and Elvis don't just stick with the lyrical cut and pasting, songs are pulled into the sampler like "Satellite," as well as "Radio Silence" on the (bonus track version) "Can You Hear Me."

It's not like Elvis hasn't explored collaborations and re-visiting before. This comes closer to "The River In Reverse," with Allen Toussaint and the roaring Stax romp of "Get Happy" than other Costello works, while The Roots bring out the moments when Costello becomes more a sublime singer, even though there's more than a little menace to the demanding title track or "Stick Out Your Tongue." "Wise Up Ghost" may sound like a mismatch of talents, but The Roots make this album into one of Costello's most interesting in a long time.

blackleatherbookshelf: (Flames)
Richard Thompson's Best Live Album
4 Out Of 5 Stars

Recorded for the "Austin City Limits" program, "Live From Austin Texas" is Richard Thompson playing in a trio setting (drummer Michel Jerome, upright bassist Danny Thompson). Spare as that sounds, Thompson's muscular guitar cuts to the front of the line every time. Released in 2005 on the NewWest label, it boasts a clear sounding mix, a great selection of songs and Thompson is fine form.

You'll get songs that range back to "Shoot Out The Lights" to material from the then new "Mock Tudor." Some of the songs I kind of thought were lesser bits on previous albums, like "Al Bowlly's In Heaven" - terrific bass solo by Danny) - sound great in this context. Of the newer material, the ballad "Persuasion" (written by Split Enz's Tim Finn) and the ripping opener, "Cooksferry Queen" are stand outs. But my favorite is (and likely forever will be) the magnificent "1952 Vincent Black Lightning." It is one of the few songs that consider to be a flawless bit of writing and playing, and on "Live From Austin, Texas," it again fails to disappoint. The outstanding version of this song alone would rate the album three stars, and here it and his band give it due justice. Simply put, "Live From Austin, Texas" is the best of Richard Thompson's many live solo albums.

blackleatherbookshelf: (Flames)
Borders are scars on the face of the planet
4 Out Of 5 Stars

So says Eugene Hutz on his merry band of musical pranksters' lead-off track, "We Rise Again." Indeed. Some three years after "Transcontinental Hustle," Gogol Bordello commence upon their ongoing mission to shred musical boundaries with "Pura Vida Conspiracy." Human cyclone Hutz seemingly runs on an inexhaustible supply of musical fuel, dragging gypsy violins, Spanish horns, punk rock guitars, accordions and his expressive voice all over the musical map.

There's also a new-found punkish spikiness to some of the songs here. Granted, I don't think anyone would ever accuse Gogol Bordello of being sedate, but "We Rise Again" and "Dig Deep Enough" start off typically, then plunge headlong into blistering pogo-dance breaks. They take it even further on the hidden bonus track "Jealous Sister." At a Ramones-timed 2:27, Hutz speaks of an Argentinian girl before hitting rapid fire verses that would do The Descendents proud, adding a strummed guitar interlude and a heavy metal guitar solo towards the end. Again, all in under two and a half minutes. Which is all the odder because the song "Jealous Sister" is 'hidden' behind is a heartfelt Hutz with a solo six string stepping along in three quarter time.

I guess I should be careful in using the word 'typically' in the confines of a Gogol Bordello CD, because "Pura Vida Conspiracy" bounces the ball across so many time zones that songs as delightful as "Lost Innocent World" confound traditional pop structure all while making me wonder why radio utterly ignores them. Is it the violins, Hutz's heavily accented voice, or just plain old conspiracy? No matter. Gogol Bordello is not about to let anyone dictate what or where their music is heading. They are on, as the song goes, "My Gypsy Auto Pilot," and "Pura Vida Conspiracy" is the latest love letter sent from a musical world without borders.

blackleatherbookshelf: (Default)
Borders are scars on the face of the planet
4 Out Of 5 Stars

So says Eugene Hutz on his merry band of musical pranksters' lead-off track, "We Rise Again." Indeed. Some three years after "Transcontinental Hustle," Gogol Bordello commence upon their ongoing mission to shred musical boundaries with "Pura Vida Conspiracy." Human cyclone Hutz seemingly runs on an inexhaustible supply of musical fuel, dragging gypsy violins, Spanish horns, punk rock guitars, accordions and his expressive voice all over the musical map.

There's also a new-found punkish spikiness to some of the songs here. Granted, I don't think anyone would ever accuse Gogol Bordello of being sedate, but "We Rise Again" and "Dig Deep Enough" start off typically, then plunge headlong into blistering pogo-dance breaks. They take it even further on the hidden bonus track "Jealous Sister." At a Ramones-timed 2:27, Hutz speaks of an Argentinian girl before hitting rapid fire verses that would do The Descendents proud, adding a strummed guitar interlude and a heavy metal guitar solo towards the end. Again, all in under two and a half minutes. Which is all the odder because the song "Jealous Sister" is 'hidden' behind is a heartfelt Hutz with a solo six string stepping along in three quarter time.

I guess I should be careful in using the word 'typically' in the confines of a Gogol Bordello CD, because "Pura Vida Conspiracy" bounces the ball across so many time zones that songs as delightful as "Lost Innocent World" confound traditional pop structure all while making me wonder why radio utterly ignores them. Is it the violins, Hutz's heavily accented voice, or just plain old conspiracy? No matter. Gogol Bordello is not about to let anyone dictate what or where their music is heading. They are on, as the song goes, "My Gypsy Auto Pilot," and "Pura Vida Conspiracy" is the latest love letter sent from a musical world without borders.



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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.

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"I'm sad as a proud man can be sad tonight"
4 Out Of 5 Stars

That line comes from "Waltzing For Dreamers," the most melancholy song on Richard Thompson's 1988 album, "Amnesia." His first of several albums for the Capital label, it's also the second of Thompson's to feature then red hot producer Mitchell Froom. I'm not sure if it was the promise of some heavier promotion for the album or that Froom kept the album to a complimentary production job, but Thompson delivered a consistent batch of songs for "Amnesia," one of his better and certainly more mainstream efforts.

As for Thompson, he kept his stature as one of rock's great undiscovered geniuses, once again providing stellar songwriting, impassioned vocals and searing guitar work. One can forgive "Gypsy Love Song" for being one of "Amnesia's" weaker tracks for the incredible guitar solo, and wait for the politically biting "Jerusalem On The Jukebox," taking its aim at the uncomfortably cozy relationship between televangelists and politicians. That's also a track that showcases Thompson's dry humor, as well as "Yankee Go Home."

The songs are buoyed not only by Froom's sympathetic production, but a series of musical pros like Tony Leven, Jim Keltner and Jerry Scheff among others. The only thing missing is the kind of classic song Thompson typically had per record, the previously mentioned "Waltzing's For Dreamers." "I Still Dream" and the somewhat feisty "Don't Tempt Me" also comes close. But on his superb follow-up, "Rumour And Sigh," arguably one of his all time best albums, that the unforgettable songs reappeared. "Amnesia" is a great start to a productive few years for Thompson, and nit a bad album to have in the collection.

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Love is a Bitter Mistress
4 Out Of 5 Stars

Richard Thompson is an amazing guitarist, a passionate singer and a terrific songwriter. He's also a man who views love with a cynical eye. "Across a Crowded Room" is one of his albums that followed in the backwash of a nasty breakup with his wife and musical partner Linda Thompson. As such, Thompson's idea of a love song is to sing "love letters you wrote are pushed down your throat, and leave you choking." While this is a stunning musical achievement of an album, it's not a feel good collection.

Thompson's ruminations of love gone sour extend to the song titles; "Love In a Faithless Country" and "When The Spell is Broken" leave little doubt to where their loyalties lie. Even the perky "You Don't Say" turns itself on its head as Thompson listens to friends telling him about all the nasty things the ex is saying, but the moondog in Thompson answers all these accusations back with "you mean she still cares? You don't say?" Then a stunning guitar lead takes over. Which is the best thing about any given Richard Thompson album. Despite the way he looks at the world, you're in the presence of one of the world's most incredible guitarists. He can sting like he does on "Little Blue Number" or fill the room with atmosphere as he does on "Ghosts In The Wind" and "Faithless Country."

"Love In A Faithless Country" may be one of my personal top ten Thompson songs (this coming from a guy who's seen Thompson live five times, from 1986 to the present). Under a haunting guitar figure, he describes a love affair in terms of warfare and espionage. Claiming that "always make your best moves late at night, always keep your tools well out of sight," before breaking into the twist of the chorus's "that's the way we make love." The ghostly background singers and martial drums contribute to an overall sinister feel.

Thompson has written some songs that are folk classics ("Beeswing," "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" both spring immediately to my mind), but "Across a Crowded Room" is one of his best albums. I'll also recommend "Rumor and Sigh," "Front Parlor Ballads" and "Shoot Out The Lights" for some of his most enjoyable work.


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Spirits in The Material World
3 Out Of 5 Stars

Sam Beam must be a very restless person. With each album, he presses himself towards new musical idioms, sometimes working, sometimes not. On "Ghost on Ghost," his sixth album, he decides he wants to be in the same jazzy realm as a Van Morrison or Joni Mitchell, infusing the songs with horns, piano and blues. This is one of those times where it doesn't work.

Beam, as Iron and Wine, has one of the most pleasing voices in popular music. He rarely lifted himself above a whisper on classic folk albums like "The Shepherd's Dog" and "Our Endless Numbered Days," so I was surprised the first time I saw him live; he sang with a full throated tenor. He leapt to that level of singing on "Kiss Each Other Clean," an album whose sonic excursions reminded me of Lindsey Buckingham at his weirdest. "Ghost on Ghost" pulls in the reigns on that experimental project and returns to the musical. But where "Kiss" was produced in extremes, "Ghost" is over produced in a poppy-lite fashion.

Beam writes songs that are strong on melody and often strong on message. He can deliver a story-song like few men working in today's music scene. Nowhere is this more evident than "Ghost's" "Winter Prayers." Unencumbered by the dense production of much of the album, it's Beam, guitar and piano with some light percussion. It delivers its message without hindrance from the bulk of the album's near easy listening style. I still love Iron and Wine, however, I never expected Sam Beam to deliver an album so extraordinarily average. "Ghost on Ghost" is a disappointment in an otherwise stellar discography.


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Story Telling
4 Out Of 5 Stars

Does your definition of classic rock mean the likes of Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne and the Eagles? If so, you're going to love the third album from Dawes. "Stories Don't End" exquisitely recreates the sound that used to be made by 'the mellow mafia,' with each song drenched in harmony, acoustic guitars and no overloading bombast to startle or shock you. It's breezy California rock that could have easily dropped in from the late 70's, and that is meant in a good way.

Vocalist Taylor Goldsmith is often a dead ringer for Jackson Browne, in fact the title track could have easily been an outtake from any given 70's Browne album. They work up singer songwriter storytelling (the cover image is the band around a campfire, theatrically passing along some sort of legend in the dark), with songs like "From A Window Seat." Following America from one side to the other, it's a chronicle of the country and its loner/losers from a tour plane and self-examination, and the disc's best song. But that doesn't even take into account just how good some of the other songs on "Stories" are. They blend jewel precise three part harmonies (the title track), wistful lyricism ("Just My Luck") and a sense of classic pop ("Hey Lover") into a seamless album.

If you're nostalgic for the sounds that used to flow out of Laurel Canyon or just miss really well done singer-songwriter music in general, Dawes is just for you. They may be making throwback music, but theirs is not a nostalgic viewpoint. "Stories Don't End" is grounded in the here and now, and is a triumphant album to have in this decade.


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Do You Feel Safe?
4 Out of 5 Stars

Far too derivative and depressing to rate higher than 4 stars, Tom Morello's Nightwatchman side-gig releases a second album of politically based folk rock. "The Fabled City" is a richer sounding album than "One Man Revolution" and maybe even more of a downer. Embittered immigrants (the title track) share space with frustrated soldiers ("The Lights Are On In Spidertown") and doomed workers ("Night Falls") in a series of minor key rumblings.

Each song on "The Fabled City" is delivered in Morello's growl or a barked out shout. He is channeling a lot of influences (Springsteen on the title cut, Johnny Cash on "King of Hell," Woody Guthrie/Pete Seeger Union Songs on "Night Falls."), what is missing is any sense of optimism. Even a rabble rouser like Steve Earle knows to throw in one sing-along per CD, and "Saint Isabelle" comes closest here. It doesn't make the songs any less affecting, but it does make "The Fabled City" a tough disc to sit all the way through.

What you do need to wait for, however, is Morello's take on Post-Katrina New Orleans. "Midnight In The City Of Destruction" sounds deeply personal and direct, and hurls this epithet:

"I lost my guitar, my home and my good fortune.
I lost my Grandfather, two neighbors and a friend.
I pray that God himself will come and drown the President
if the levees break again."

"The Fabled City" is a big old lefty diatribe, and if you can live with that, you'll enjoy the darkly intense folk-protests Morello spits out. Just be prepared for the fact that this is one angry fellow folkie and Tom's making it clear that he is not going to go quietly.


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Epic Avetts
4 Out Of 5 Stars

I was lucky enough to catch the Avett Brothers live at the 50th Newport Folk Festival, where they were previewing songs from the forthcoming "I and Love and You." I was immediately taken by their range and scope, as well as their impact as a band. I thought I&L&U was one of the best albums of the year, and it's taken them since 2009 to create this follow-up. "The Carpenter" takes those intense, acute moments of the last album and gives them a glossier sound without losing any of the emotional wallop. In fact, if the longing and sadness of "A Father's First Spring" doesn't tug your heartstrings, you're reading the wrong review.

The Avett Brothers are into making epic music. There's not as much bombast here as there is on, say, Mumford and Sons' "Babel," and "The Carpenter" might be better for it. "Live and Die" plucks Scott Avett's banjo while swinging on a sing-along chorus. They also make great use of their harmony singing, with an almost doo-wop go at "Pretty Girl From Michigan" (the latest in a series of "Pretty Girl..." songs) or the oddly rocking "Paul Newman Vs The Demons." (The most unsubtle song here, and proof that these men have no issues with their eccentricities.)

The meat of the album remains the brothers' folk-band style, the stuff that got them and Mumford and Sons behind Bob Dylan. Rick Rubin adds the polish but doesn't make things run outside the album's limits. You can get "Down With The Shine," take a roll on the 90 second "Geraldine" or wax philosophical on the title song, but you'll never miss out on some tasty licks and lyrics. I don't feel "The Carpenter" quite measures up to the previous album, however, you'll not walk away dissatisfied. If you're one of the trendy folkies that snapped up "Babel" the first week out, "The Carpenter" should be in your playlist, too.


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September 2015

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