Black Keys, The Sadies, Mary Gauthier, Susan Cowsill and More

There are more than a few parallels between the White Stripes and The Black Keys that go well beyond their simple guitar/drums architecture. The Keys have recently embarked on an even odder array of outside gigs than Jack White, including guitarist Dan A

I’m so far behind I can see my own ass. And it’s not a pretty sight.

Given my current schedule, I’ll keep this opening brief, other than to note the welcomed surplus of women in this week’s releases — sisters are doing it for themselves and for us as well and we’re the better for it — and to sadly acknowledge the passing of daytime talk show pioneer Art Linkletter and Slipknot bassist Paul Gray. If heaven is indeed the perfect place we all want it to be, the pair is already collaborating on a new book: The Guy from Slipknot Says the Darnedest Things.

Scroll on, scrollers.

There are more than a few parallels between the White Stripes and the The Black Keys that go well beyond their simple guitar/drums architecture. Just as Jack White has kept his primary gig interesting by branching into a variety of side projects, The Black Keys have recently embarked on an even odder array of outside gigs, including guitarist Dan Auerbach’s production duties (the new Jessica Lea Mayfield among the first) and his excellent, diverse and nuanced solo album, last year’s Keep It Hid, and drummer Patrick Carney’s new outfit, appropriately dubbed Drummer, and its 2009 debut, Feel Good Together. Both have hit the road in support of their new albums in full band configurations.

In addition, Auerbach and Carney entered into a collaboration with rapper Jim Jones at the request of Rap mogul Damon Dash (a project that expanded to include Mos Def, Raekwon, Q-Tip, Ludicris and RZA, among others) which they christened Blackroc. All of this, plus Carney’s recent divorce and relocation to Brooklyn, had a direct impact on the direction The Black Keys took on its latest album, Brothers.

When Auerbach and Carney began the process of making Brothers, they had just wrapped up the Blackroc sessions, where they utilized bass lines and wrote keyboard-based songs, all of which was well outside of the Keys’ standard methodology. The songs that began to bubble up out of the Keys’ writing sessions were informed by the Hip Hop and Soul music they had just made and were largely still experiencing, resulting in that spirit being woven deep into the funky swing and vulnerable falsetto on Brothers’ led track, “Everlasting Light,” and the Indie-Blues-meets-Curtis-Mayfield-Soul of “Next Girl.”

At the same time, the Keys maintain their Blues groove on the psychedelically swampy “Black Mud,” the loping fuzz Blues of “She’s Long Gone” and the Screamin’ Jay Hawkins-on-harpsichord prowl of “Too Afraid to Love You.” Whatever sonic mood Auerbach and Carney choose for their songs, the lyrical concerns have never been more personally illuminating and emotionally naked; even the songs that aren’t necessarily autobiographical come from a raw and wounded place that understands the pain and translates it into creative expression.

For anyone who thought there could be no evolution for a two-man Blues group, The Black Keys offer Brothers as brilliant evidence to the contrary.

The Sadies are so perpetually busy, it’s amazing they found the time for a new album. The Toronto quartet has been swamped since their last album (2007’s transcendent Psych/Surf-drenched New Seasons), backing Neko Case, collaborating with John Doe, the covers album they released together last year, touring constantly on their own and with Case and Doe (among others) and occasional work on Adult Swim’s 12 Oz. Mouse. With all this activity and home lives to boot, the appearance of Darker Circles is as unexpected as it is welcomed.

The heart of The Sadies is the band’s guitarist brothers Dallas and Travis Good, and as the scions of one of Canada’s most renowned musical groups, The Good Brothers the duo’s penchant for lacing their blazing stompabilly Surf Rock with more than a trace of Country was not only understood but completely justified. With Darker Circles, it seems as though the Goods, along with bassist Sean Dean and drummer Mike Belitsky, take yet another step toward incorporating all of the diverse aspects of their diverse musical experience, from their familial Country heritage to the raging Surf instrumentals the Goods perpetrated as Phonocomb to the Rockabilly and Garage Rock they’ve embraced along the way.

New Seasons seemed slightly more focused on The Sadies’ psychedelic cowboy sound, but Darker Circles encompasses more of the band’s total sonic identity. Oddly enough, both albums were produced by Jayhawk Gary Louris, so the difference clearly comes from The Sadies members themselves. Perhaps it’s a matter of maturation, although the band’s sonic quilt of influence and execution has never seemed particularly immature. The songs and sounds on Darker Circles just seem to emanate from a central source like never before, from the Garage Psychobilly Soul of “Another Year Again” and the majestic Surficana of “Cut Corners” to the psychedelic waltz of “Tell Her What I Said” and the Gram Parsons-tinged “Postcards.”

With Darker Circles, The Sadies bring to mind the lysergic Country success of The Grateful Dead while mining an even deeper and more emotionally invested songwriting ethic.

Folk singer/songwriter Mary Gauthier’s early life is the stuff of gritty urban novels. As a teenage runaway, she experienced homelessness, alcohol, drugs, jail and detox before her 18th birthday. Her adult adventures are even more improbable, as she was a philosophy major at LSU but dropped out in her drug-soaked senior year, relocated to Boston and took a series of jobs for which the word “menial” would be a grandiose compliment. While still drinking and drugging, Gauthier attended classes at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts and after graduation opened the wildly successful Dixie Kitchen restaurant in Boston, which finally forced her to get sober for good.

Amazingly, Gauthier’s sobriety sparked a desire to write songs, something she had never done, and led her to record her debut CD, Dixie Kitchen, in 1997, earning her a nomination for Best New Contemporary Folk Artist in the Boston Music Awards. Two years later, she sold her stake in the restaurant and began making music full time. Beyond that came a move to Nashville, a succession of highly regarded albums (including her Lost Highway debut Mercy Now), well-attended tours and accolades from nearly every corner and covers of her songs by the likes of Tim McGraw, Blake Shelton and Jimmy Buffett.

As vulnerable and exposed as Gauthier’s life has been to this point, it’s nothing compared to the raw nerve of her latest work and debut for new label Razor & Tie, The Foundling. The concept album tells Gauthier’s own story: Abandoned at birth by a mother she never knew, careening through life looking for purpose, finally deciding to trace her roots and finding and being denied a personal meeting with her birth mother, who was still mortally shamed by her pregnancy and casting off her child.

Gauthier’s song cycle in relating this tale is everything you’d expect from the idea as well as from the artist; The Foundling is a harrowing and ultimately derailed journey of discovery that forces Gauthier to define herself beyond her genetic fingerprint. She and producer Michael Timmins have constructed a haunting sonic backdrop for her compelling narrative; the gypsy Folk feel of the opening title track, the atmospheric ambient textures (almost an approximation of sounds heard from the womb) of “Mama Here, Mama Gone,” the peppy Bluegrass melancholy of “Goodbye,” the boozy John Prine carnival of “Sideshow.”

The most powerful moment on The Foundling is certainly “March 11, 1962,” Gauthier’s recreation in song of the actual conversation she had with the mother whose psyche was still too damaged to acknowledge the daughter she left in an orphanage nearly 50 years ago. Although the outcome was not what Gauthier had anticipated, neither was the sense of resolution that she felt at the end of the process and an acceptance that, regardless of the particulars, we're all vagabonds who have been rejected in some sense by life.

The Foundling is a difficult listen, heart-wrenching and almost too personal, but it's also Mary Gauthier’s reconciliation with and triumph over the sad circumstances of her birth and abandonment. From great pain comes great art, she has sonically and lyrically painted her healing masterpiece.

Australian singer/songwriter/guitarist Anne McCue has been busy over the past six years packing her press kit with the kind of glowing accolades that a lot of artists would pay a flack to write about them. Before a move to Los Angeles and her acclaimed solo albums — 2004’s Roll and 2006’s Koala Motel — McCue did stints in her homeland with Girl Monster and the signed-and-recorded-but-unreleased Eden AKA. In between she played Saigon’s nightclub scene for a year, which culminated in her first acoustic solo album, 2001’s Amazing Ordinary Things.

Her recent notices have been even more impressive. McCue shone in a Jimi Hendrix tribute at the 2007 International Guitar Festival, she snagged the Roots Music Association’s Folk Artist of the Year award in 2008 and she’s gotten gushing praise from the likes of Lucinda Williams and Heart’s Nancy Wilson.

After returning to an acoustic format for last year’s East of Electric, McCue plugs back in and dusts the rafters with her latest, Broken Promise Land. The album’s lead track and first single, “Don’t Go to Texas (Without Me),” establishes McCue’s mission statement at the outset with chugging Stones riffs and rhythm over a bedrock beat provided by Midnight Oil bassist Bones Hillman and ex-Wilco drummer Ken Coomer. McCue channels Jimmy Page on “Ol’ Black Sky,” goes swamp crazy on the J.J. Cale-tinged “The Old Man‘s Talkin’,” slinks around the edges of spy and surf themes on “God‘s Home Number” and flaunts her Hendrix devotion on the title track. And you’re not imagining the warmth and textural depth of Broken Promise Land; McCue, who produced herself this time out, recorded analog to tape for an old-school vibe.

In the end, though, it’s McCue’s stratospheric guitar work, whisky-soaked voice and songs crackling with classic intensity and modern energy that define Broken Promise Land as a prime example of raw and dirty Blues Rock in the new millennium.

Stephanie Finch has a pretty impressive résumé, a good deal of it in some creative aggregation with her husband Chuck Prophet, as a member of his recording and touring band and as a member of their side project, Go Go Market. Prophet is attached to Cry Tomorrow, Finch’s first album under her own name, as producer, guitarist and occasional co-writer. And even though her backing band, The Company Men, is ridiculously stocked with talent — Prophet, multi-instrumentalists Kelley Stoltz and Rusty Miller — this is clearly Finch’s show, from her tough/tender Aimee Mann-meets-Amy Rigby lead vocals to her stabbing single note Stooges piano work to her swirling ’60s harpsichord.

Finch works a variety of diverse angles on Cry Tomorrow, from the soulful Pop of the Charlie and Inez Foxx hit “Count the Days 1234567,” the fuzzy Garage Psych Pop of “Don’t Back Out Now” and the swaggering ’60s Pop/Rock of “In My Book of Love,” to her Dusty Springfield-channeling-Chrissie Hynde-and-Tom Petty reading of the Randy Newman obscurity “She’s the One.”

With a strong, guiding presence at the front, Finch puts The Company Men through their paces and they respond magnificently on the quietly punchy Cry Tomorrow.

Music listeners of a certain age (read: old) are sure to remember The Cowsills, the mother-and-kids act from the ’60s that dominated the charts with sunshine Pop hits like “The Rain, the Park and Other Things,” “Indian Lake” and their effervescent take on “Hair.” They were ultimately the real-life template for The Partridge Family television series.

Susan Cowsill was the youngest, the only girl and the one with the highest musical profile of the family in adulthood. In addition to timed logged with Dwight Twilley’s band and acclaimed Roots Rock supergroup Continental Drifters with ex-husband/dB Peter Holsapple, current husband Russ Broussard and sister-in-law/Bangle Vicki Peterson, Cowsill also launched her solo career in 2005 with the impressive and rightly lauded Just Believe It.

Cowsill’s sophomore solo effort, Lighthouse, comes with an excess of heavy baggage. Cowsill and Broussard lost nearly everything after Hurricane Katrina, her brother Barry drowned either during the storm or in its aftermath and brother Bill died at his home in Canada as the family was holding Barry’s memorial service in New Orleans. That heaviness informs a certain portion of the songs here, from the painful reality of “The Way That It Goes” to the resigned baroque Folk/Pop determination of “Real Life” to her sparse yet emotionally powerful take on Jimmy Webb’s classic “Galveston.”

But the album’s hopeful title is Lighthouse, a beacon that guides weary, storm-tossed travelers back home to safety. As much as the album is informed by Cowsill’s recent darkness, it is also an instrument of her healing, as evidenced by the heartbreaking ode to perseverance in “Could This Be Home” and the wistful yet hopeful title track. But nowhere is that spirit typified better than in her soaring and triumphant reading of her brother Barry’s bittersweet composition “River of Love,” featuring harmony vocals from her surviving brothers Bob, Paul and John and brilliant guitar work from session icon (and former Cowsills guitarist) Waddy Wachtel.

Lighthouse is the album that smiles through Susan Cowsill’s tears, and even though her heartbreak has given birth to something beautiful and affecting, here’s hoping her next album’s inspirations come from a much brighter place.

In Danko Jones’ world, the badass gets the best girl (who just might be your girl), the fastest car, the strongest whiskey and wins every fight, and he’s more than ready to prove to you that he's that very badass. Like a Canadian hybrid of Kiss and AC/DC with a potent splice of contemporary Hard Rock and Pop Metal, guitarist Jones and his rhythm section of the gods — power bassist John Calabrese and drum hammer Dan Cornelius — swagger and bluster their way through another high-volume testosteronefest on their latest, Below the Belt.

Jones has his lyrical cliches frontloaded into every song on Below the Belt, from “I Think Bad Thoughts” (“I can rip you off and steal all your cash/ Sucker punch you in the face, stand back and laugh”) to “Magic Snake” (“It’s Friday night but your magic snake don’t slither no more”) to “(I Can’t Handle) Moderation” (“I can’t handle moderation/ I can’t take just one bite”). And if you’re blithely unaware of Danko Jones’ mode of operation by the band’s sixth studio album, the band splashes its attitude all over Below the Belt’s cover art, with Jones seated imperiously in a rattan plantation chair between a statuesque blonde in a bondage bikini and thigh boots and a roaring lion.

The good news is that, as on albums past, the trio invests their hormonal anthems with a healthy dose of inventive melodic Rock so that, even if the message is slightly juvenile, the intense delivery system will keep you engaged. And they do it with a sense of humor that ranges from obvious (the single entendre of “Magic Snake”) to more cleverly subtle (the “break up, break up, everybody break up” backing vocal refrain on the Ramones-like “I Wanna Break Up With You,” which is a sly reference to The Beatles’ pot-smoking entreaty on “I Am the Walrus”).

The bad news is that the salacious humor and Rock dude stereotyping on Below the Belt is more thickly applied here, so if your threshold for that kind of thing is low you might not care for Jones’ brand of ego-driven Rock. Jones has been working this corner for quite some time, so even if song ideas are a slightly threadbare on Below the Belt, his loyal fan base likely won’t give a toss and they’ll eat this up with the fervor that they have lavished upon Jones since his very first album.