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.

blackleatherbookshelf: (Flames)
3 Out Of 5 Stars

Jason Mraz has always seemed like a puppy, always buoyant and ever so eager to please, His albums were catchy and fun, light pop with folk elements. Not so with "Yes!" Moving from slow song to slow song, Mraz has evolved from a fun and loveable lightweight to straight up middle of the road schmaltz. I guess you can call this an attempt at maturity, but with the exception of "Shine," things kind of blend into each other.

He's now working with an all-female, rock-folk band called Raining Jane, but you'd never know it from the general facelessness of the proceedings. They do add some pretty harmonies (like the lush opener "Rise - Love Someone") and some interesting instrumental touches (the sitar on "Shine") and the occasional bouncy bit (the drum beat of "Everywhere"). Yet the album personifies the definition of 'easy listening,' as Mraz doesn't seem to want to challenge his persona as a singer songwriter. It's not that an artist can't swing into a folk style and make it work, John Mayer proved that with his "Born and Raised." However, Mraz is taking it a little too laid back to make things happen. "Yes!" is still eager to please, but the man who laments the lack of "Quiet" in the modern world is taking that a tad too literally here.

blackleatherbookshelf: (Flames)
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)
Telling Strange Tales
4 Out Of 5 Stars

Stripping themselves back considerably from their last few albums, Coldplay's "Ghost Stories" bares the band to key piano pop balladry and Chris Martin's laments of love. For fans of the lush "Viva La Vida" or the Eno-inilftrated "Mylo Xyloto, this will sound almost naked. Martin has never sounded this intimate, and the band hasn't been this uncluttered sine their "Parachutes" debut.

What would explain this sudden call back to a more bare bones sound? Well, for one, Martin and longtime lady Gwyneth Paltrow have called it quits, and some of the songs sure do feel like break-up please. "Magic" is the earnest tip of the iceberg, as Martin keeps begging "I don't want anyone else but you" over and over above a most subdued electronic pulse. Where most other bands would make this into pure corn, Coldplay make it so darn earnest that you kind of feel for the guy. And it doesn't always work. Soon after, he wails on "Ink" that he loves so much it hurts...just like that brand new tattoo. Even Martin can't get away with that one.

But what he does pull out of his hat here is sometimes close to brilliance. Coldplay may easily be one of the biggest bands in the world, but few would make such a left field turn as they do on "Ghost Stories." That inclination towards pop heavens is on full display on the album's most uptempo track, "Sky Full Of Stars." On prior albums, the band would have laid on the production till the song was bleeding U2-isms, this time around, it's piano filtered through some electronic treatments and Martin laying on as thick as he can. "In a sky full of stars, I think I saw you..." just as the beat kicks in courtesy of Swedish DJ Avicii. It's the kind of song that makes you happy to hear it on the radio.

"Ghost Stories" may be confessionals all the way, but it also brings Coldplay down to Earth. By the time it's over, Martin is comparing himself to a flock of birds drifting above the ground in that big falsetto of his. For all the glitter and widescreen production of their previous albums, this is where they finally find their soul. Bare souls, it seems, perhaps fly better.

blackleatherbookshelf: (Flames)
Getting up in Morrissey's Business
4 Out Of 5 Stars

After setting the record straight with his "Autobiography," Morrissey turns up the guitars and waxes lyrically in the way only he can. "World Peace is None Of Your Business." He's still railing away about apathy, vegetarianism, and unrequited love, It may also be his most guitar heavy album since the classic "Your Arsenal." Longtime cohort Boz Booher is given chords to crunch and leads to distort all across "World Peace," yet Morrissey leaves room for castanets and accordion (an outright solo on "Earth is The Lonliest Planet" and underpinnings of "The Bullfighter Dies," another pro-animal rights screed).

This is a fun album, because Moz sounds like he's having fun singing. Only on "I Am Not A Man" does he come off as strident, but it's very much a statement of purpose than any song he's done in quite awhile. Howling against jocks, meat eaters and those who'd destroy the planet, it also clocks in at nearly eight minutes, the longest song on "World Peace." Many of the songs are vintage Morrissey, like "Staircase At The University," (in which a despondent student kills herself over the admonishments of a disciplinarian father and snobbish boyfriend while a flamenco guitar solos away) and "Kiss Me A Lot," which add a touch of jangle pop to the album.

If you want to herald his return (it's been five years since "Years Of Refusal"), go ahead. But for those of us who thrill to a lyric like:

World peace is none of your business.
Police will stun you with their stun guns
Or they'll disable you with tasers.
That's what government's for,
Oh, you poor little fool.

Then this will feel like the Morrissey many of us have come to know and love.

blackleatherbookshelf: (Flames)
From a Whisper
4 Out Of 5 Stars

Mike Rosenberg (a.k.a. Passenger) hit the jackpot last year when the whispery break-up ballad, "Let Her Go," hit escape velocity (thanks in no small part to being used in an emotional beer advert showing a bond between a dog and a Clydesdale), towing his two year old "All The Little Lights" to stardom along with it. Passenger had already spent a few years before this success playing and writing, so there isn't much worry about a sophomore slump when it comes to "Whispers," his fourth album over all. If success has given him anything, it's a bit more of a kick to his step, as many of the new CD's songs give that whispery voice of his some more uptempo backing to play around.

There's a more percussive bent to the opener, "Coins In The Fountain," with a sinuous beat trundling under happy lyrics that proclaim that "Love is the only song I'll sing." It's a far cry from the heartbreak of "Let Her Go," but by all means there's plenty of sad goodbyes to be found throughout "Whispers." "Heart's On Fire" even addresses it from his role as singer-songwriter; "you know those love songs will always break your heart." All done to a tasteful folk accompaniment, of course. And then there's Rosenberg telling everyone that he doesn't care what you think, because at "27," he feels no need to just churn out songs that will put him on "a video screen."

What has set Passenger apart from most of the singer songwriters popping out of the woodwork of late is that he really can turn out an ace story. No where on "Whispers" is this more evident than the emotionally touching "Riding to New York," allegedly based on a real encounter Rosenberg had on tour. In it, he meets an old man dying of cancer who just wants to get closure.

"I wanna see my grand-daughter one last time,
Wanna hold her close and feel her tiny heartbeat next to mine.
Wanna see my son and the man he's become,
Tell him I'm sorry for the things I've done,"

It's his most moving and poignant song to date, and the best thing about "Whispers." After four albums and a move into the spotlight, Passenger shows that he's got the goods to make his career more than a break-up ballad from a sappy commercial.

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)
To That Land Uncharted
4 Out Of 5 Stars

After revisiting her career through the four volumes of "Close Up" albums, Suzanne Vega cleaves close to that feel on her "Tales From The Realm Of The Queen of Pentangles." Which, despite its unwieldy title, feels like her earlier titles in that the folkish elements are more forward and her poetry is again enigmatic and enchanting.

"I don't know about happiness but virtue's overrated" she sweetly sings on "Laying On The Hands." To that end, Vega sings about the disparity between the rich and poor ("Fools Complaint"), being careful of what you wish for ("Don't Uncork What You Can't Contain," which samples 50 Cent of all people) and the excellent "Portrait of the Knight Of The Wands." The gentleness of "Portrait," which uses minimal effects under an acoustic guitar, recalls one of Vega's greatest moments, "The Queen and The Soldier." Once again, a soldier wearily ponders his mission all while obeying with a heavy heart. Great stuff.

Given that Vega's brand of Greenwich Village folk is enjoying a kind of vogue (think Mumford and Sons or better still, the Avett Brothers), "Tales From The Realm" could come off as elder stateswoman for those whippersnappers bringing the style back. There may not be anything of a revelation here, but her seven year break has served her well, and Suzanne Vega's "Tales From The Realm" is storytelling music at its best.

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.

blackleatherbookshelf: (Flames)
The Haunting of Pale Green Ghosts
5 Out Of 5 Stars

Blessed with a coffee-cream baritone and cursed by crashing relationships, "Pale Green Ghosts" finds John Grant striding an emotional chasm that keeps one foot on acerbic sarcasm and the other on a wit that turns both inward and outward. You're unlikely to hear any album more self confessional in this year. I've been listening for a couple of months and just can't shake the way Grant delivers a blow by blow account of both his break-up and the tiniest touch of optimism by the album's end.

And what an ending "Pale Green Ghosts" comes with. "Glaciers" comes to a conclusion that even with the slow motion pain driving through his life, in the aftermath of the agony will come "beautiful landscapes" and "precious metals." All of which follows recriminations about hypocrisy and theocracy. Or there's the wicked sense of humor of "GMF" (aka Greaest Mother Youknowwhat)

"Half of the time I think I'm in some movie.
I play the underdog of course.
I wonder who they'll get to play me.
Maybe they could dig up Richard Burton's corpse."

Add that the harmony is provided by perennial emotional depth charge Sinead O'Connor (who provides harmonies on three other songs) and it just adds to the bitter joke. There's also the deft confession of his HIV+ status on "Ernest Borgnine" where he wishes that 'Ernie' would call him up and offer him some life advice.

The album is carried by minimalist beats and synthed out production that accents Grant's whiplash lyricism, mainly directed at the ex in what must have been one of the all-time worst breakups in history. "You got a black belt in BS" he accuses over what could almost be a danceable single if it weren't so wickedly cruel and absurdly funny. "Pale Green Ghosts" may depend on its laptop underpinnings, but the man is not background music. It demands that you step into a place like "I Hate This Town" where everyone, including you, get to share his view of the world. Trust me, when the music is this good, you'll want to.

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 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.

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)
Did you do it for love? Did you do it for money?
3 Out Of 5 Stars

The last Eagles album of their initial run was also their weakest. Coming off the triumph of "Hotel California," the same pitfalls that they sang about on that album now befell the band. Drugs, dissent and an impossible to meet demand kind of doomed "The Long Run" before it was even released, but then the weakness of the bulk of the album didn't help the situation, either. "The Long Run" is the first album since their debut to feature obvious filler, and some of it was even desperate sounding.

The two initial singles, "Heartache Tonight" and the title song did do the band proud. Don Henley employs his jaded sense into "The Long Run," asking his lady friend if she measures up to her expectations, while teasing that "all the debutantes in Houston, baby, couldn't hold a candle to you." Heartache Tonight" is a chant along number from Glenn Frey and rocks out pretty well.

But then you start getting to the questionable material. "In The City" was already a modest solo hit for Joe Walsh, so there was not much point to adding it here in an Eagle-fied version other than to fill up time. "Teenage Jail/The Greeks Don't Want No Freaks" are kind of goofy, but they'd gone to great lengths on both "Hotel California" and "One of These Nights" proving that they could fill an album without penning songs that ventured into an approximation of self-parody.

That not withstanding, there are three other songs that keep "The Long Run" from being a total dud. Timothy B Schmidt rises to the occasion with his R'n'B inflected "I Can't Tell You Why" while Don Felder and Walsh do a slinky twin talk-box guitar riff on "Those Shoes." Then there's another masterstroke from Henley, who penned what sounds like it could've been an outtake from "Hotel California," the melancholy "The Sad Cafe." Once again, he ruminates on the loss of Californian innocence and wonders where all the good times have gone. After all, Eagles themselves could have been one of those fledgling bands to use the likes of a "Sad Cafe" to get their start. It's kind of ironic that a song lamenting humble beginnings closed out an album that was the sound of Eagles' imminent collapse.

"The Long Run" was basically that. Once they squeaked this album out, the infamous Long Beach incident took place and the band would stay apart until, as Henely oft put it, "Hell Freezes Over." But "The Long Run" was the end of a band that went out, not with a bang but a whimper.

blackleatherbookshelf: (Flames)
Portrait of The Artist as a Young Woman
4 Out Of 5 Stars

A natural born vocal talent, Adele debuted with a fully realized album that, despite being titled "19," is a much wiser and mature sounding album. From the first gently picked guitar that drizzles under the opening "Daydreamer" to the torchy closer "Hometwon Glory," Adele captivates you with a voice that carries a tradition of classic belters, including the likes of Dusty Springfield, to the modern Brit-Soul of Amy Winehouse.

But that is where comparisons end. There are few folks who can take songs and just outright own them, the way Adele handles Bob Dylan's "To Make You Feel My Love," or sell the songs she's written herself, like the tinkling of "First Love." Her voice is a soaring instrument unto itself, which means that the songs that work the best are the ones with the barebones arrangements. Yet given a full production number, she carries herself just fine, as she does on the international hit "Chasing Pavements." In fact, the only time things get wonky on "19" is when a more modern pop style is employed on "Tired." She's got enough charisma and chops to be able to dispense with the too busy sound of it.

Given that Adele matured into a serious force of nature when "21" appeared two years later, "19" was just the sampler. Still, as a debut album, "19" captures and folds you up in its warmth and sheer skill as a singer and songwriter. Classic pop doesn't come much finer than this.

blackleatherbookshelf: (Flames)
False Advertising
3 Out Of 5 Stars

I guess I finally have to own up to it; KD Lang has been making the same album for a few releases. You're getting everything you'll love about her, that gorgeous voice, the extremely tasteful arrangements and musicianship, the immaculate production. Touches of country (love that dobro) and Lang's chanteuse's ease with a lyrical lick. But you'll also miss what you really loved. "Sing It Loud" is dominated by songs that range from mid-tempo ("Sorrow Nevermore") to downright languid ("A Sleep With No Dreaming"). The more you listen, the more it becomes obvious that Lang has given up on music that has any kind of pep in its step. When you call your band Siss Boom Bang, you'd expect a little bang, maybe? Not this time.

Lang has still got the chops to take a song and just claim the thing as her own. While it mirrors the version done by Simply Red a couple decades ago, Lang's take on the Talking Heads' "Heaven" is masterful. She also nails the title track, but the point is that you're calling the album "Sing It Loud." Is it too much to ask for a little volume, a little bit of kick? The same misrepresentation happens when you call a song "Sugar Buzz." I'm not one to bemoan that she's no longer cutting "Absolute Torch and Twang," but even "Invincible Summer" threw in a few pop thrills for a listener to grab hold of and for Lang to sink her teeth into. "Sing It Loud" is a joyless, tepid affair that you've heard too many times before.

blackleatherbookshelf: (Flames)
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.

blackleatherbookshelf: (Flames)
Mellencamp Transitions Yet Again
3 Out Of 5 Stars

John Mellencamp has never been one to allow his muse any slack. Be the disputes he's had over his name, his image and even his sound, Mellencamp has been kicking at the prickles since he started out. For 1996's "Mr Happy Go Lucky," Mellencamp again threw a spanner into the public's expectations and hired noted dance producer Junior Vasquez to man the production booth. Purists immediately cried foul over the album's dependence on drum loops, samples and other gimmicks, but they missed the point. Mellencamp, who had just recovered from a major heart attack, was compelled more than ever to explore his music on his terms and "Mr Happy Go Lucky" succeeds more than it fails.

Even with the touches added by Vasquez, the album still depends mainly on the kind of rootsy/folkish rock Mellencamp had been coaxing out of his songs sine "Big Daddy." The big hit, "Key West Intermezzo," glides atop a shuffling groove, but has the traditional drum clap and home-baked electric piano moving things along under Mellencamp's usual gruff melodic singing. Even with a dance producer, Mellencamp sounds more like Springsteen than Madonna. In fact, the one or two times that Mellencamp seems to be letting Vasquez push him, like "This May Not Be The End Of The World," sound forced.

You'll still be getting plenty of the patented Mellencamp sounds (I count "Key West Intermezzo" among them), like "Just Another Day" and "Circling The Moon," plus his deepening love of roots rock, like "Jackamo Road" and "The Full Catastrophe." Never one to sit on his laurels or cater to anyone's expectations, John Mellencamp was still capable of bending genres and confounding expectations. "Mr Happy Go Lucky" was another one of those albums and a worthy disc out of Mellencamp's library.

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)
Go go, Gordon
4 Out Of 5 Stars

When the American debut of Barenaked Ladies crossed my desk many years ago, I was not sure quite what to make of them. They were certainly crucially adept, as each song sounded musically delightful. They had a whimsical sense of humor that would pop-up baldly on many of the songs. They were vocally versatile, with multiple lead singers who could also harmonize nicely. I thought "Gordon" was one of the best debut albums I'd heard in years, much the equal of 10cc or the likes of Nick Lowe, two other artists who weren't afraid if mixing serious playing with goofy jokes.

I also wondered if American audiences would ever catch on. The humor was often blatant, like "Grade Nine," which poked fun at elementary school nerdom, right down to the Rush guitar licks. Or one of their eventual concert staples, "If I Had A Million Dollars," which was both a decent song and a poke at consumerism that ends in a punch line (and included a bacon joke. After all Barenaked ladies are Canadian). But amidst the comedic moments were some serious, thought provoking songwriting. "The Flag" with Ed Robertson and Steve Page is a serious look at the "complicated people leading complicated lives," as a relationship falls to surrender, or the lovely pair together in the jazzy "I Love You."

Either side of the Barenaked Ladies' equation worked. If you were willing to allow the sense of humor not get in the way of the musicianship and the ace singing and writing of Ed Robertson and Steve Page, "Gordon" is a rewarding album. They also got better real fast, and as "One Week" eventually proved, they had the stuff of stardom.



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September 2015

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