Ed Kowalczyk, Magnolia Mountain, Jimmie Vaughan, Walter Trout and More

I move on trying to play catch-up with a mountain of new album releases, with just barely a breath to mention the passings of underground comic author Harvey Pekar and counterculture figure Tuli Kupferberg, co-frontman and songwriter for The Fugs. Let's

I’m still playing from the catch-up position and at the time of this writing, there’s no telling if I’ll be current by vacation time. I’m burning through the work stacked up on my calendar with such speed that it barely registers when I’ve finished one piece and moved onto another. I actually woke up the other day thinking about a lead I wanted to write for an assigned feature, and had just about worked one out mentally to my satisfaction while spooning my way through a bowl of Frosted Mini-Wheats when it dawned on me that I’d actually gone through this exercise two days before, when I had started and finished the assignment in the same day. Doh.

So I move on, with just barely a breath to mention the passings of underground comic author Harvey Pekar and counterculture figure Tuli Kupferberg, co-frontman and songwriter for The Fugs. Cleveland-based Pekar was the writer and subject of the brilliantly mundane American Splendor comic, which was drawn by a variety of artists (including R. Crumb) and he was a frequent guest of David Letterman’s in the ’80s until their very public and contentious parting of the ways around 1987. If you don’t know American Splendor, there are a number of great compilations available. And be sure to check out Paul Giamatti’s brilliant portrayal of Pekar in the surreal film adaptation of AS, which features the real Harvey Pekar. Which was exactly what you got, regardless of the situation.

Tuli Kupferberg’s work with The Fugs (named after Norman Mailer’s euphemistic, censorship-resistant spelling for the word “fuck” in The Naked and the Dead) made them one of the most outrageous Folk bands of the ’60s, with songs like “Group Grope,” “Kill for Peace,” “Marijuana,” “Boobs a Lot,” “Slum Goddess” and “I Couldn’t Get High.” Kupferberg was already 41 when he co-founded The Fugs with Ed Sanders in 1964. The band continued sporadically in one form or another for the next 46 years. Be Free: The Fugs Final CD (Part 2) was released in February, right around the time of a benefit concert for Kupferberg, which he was unable to attend due to a pair of strokes he suffered last year that robbed him of nearly all of his eyesight. Tuli Kupferberg was a poet, author, songwriter, anarchist, pacifist and a seminal figure in the counterculture scene of the ’60s and well beyond. His unique perspective on music, society and politics will be sorely missed.

As break-ups go, the end of Live couldn’t have been much uglier. Frontman Ed Kowalczyk reportedly signed a new publishing deal without the rest of the band’s knowledge, demanded a “lead singer bonus” for Live’s Pinkpop Festival appearance last year and allegedly withheld royalties from his bandmates. The remainder of the band announced that Live’s hiatus had become a dissolution and that they would never play another show with Kowalczyk, ostensibly making their side project, The Gracious Few, their new permanent gig. Kowalczyk went on an acoustic tour with Art Alexakis and Leigh Nash, recorded his solo debut and remained relatively quiet about the end of Live as we know it.

What Kowalczyk has said is that he was looking for fresh inspiration and that his new solo direction is more experimental than his work with Live. Perhaps that inspiration and experimentalism will be reflected in his sophomore effort, because Alive merely seems like evidence that Kowalczyk can make a Live album on his own. And not the viscerally slashing, anthemic Rock of the band’s earliest successes, like “I Alone” and “Lightning Crashes,” but the subdued and rather pedestrian output of Live’s later years. Even the title seems to allude to both Kowalczyk’s past and his album’s generic nature (A Live).

There are moments where Kowalczyk exhibits flashes of moving beyond his band accomplishments (the dramatic “Grace,” the Middle Eastern Blues buzz of “Zion”), but too often Alive seems rooted in songs, arrangements and performances that are simply average. Faithful Live fans will likely be pleased with Alive (as long as they’re not taking sides in the band’s messy divorce), but hardcore followers may be disappointed that Kowalczyk has taken such a safe and uneventful first step in his solo career.

Magnolia Mountain’s debut album, last year’s Nothing As It Was, was a stellar introduction to a band with an almost boundless amount of Americana/Bluegrass/Country potential and it garnered a good deal of deserved acclaim as a result. In the subsequent year and a half since its release, Magnolia Mountain lost a member, gained two more, gigged relentlessly and immediately set to work on their sophomore release. How immediate? At the release show for the debut album, the Cincinnati-based band played five songs that wound up on its incredible sophomore album, Redbird Green.

[Read my recent interview with members of Magnolia Mountain here.]

From sheer amount of music to stylistic shifts to depth and breadth of songs, the Magnolias have amped up every facet of their presentation on Redbird Green. Mark Utley is proving to be a world-class songwriter and Magnolia Mountain is becoming the perfect vehicle for interpreting his work in any and every conceivable musical permutation under the Americana banner. Structured like a four-sided double vinyl album (Redbird Green is also available in the vinyl format), the album starts off with a quartet of diversity on “Side One” — the propulsive done-me-wrong chug of “Gone,” a hybrid of Johnny Cash’s traditional magnificence and Rodney Crowell’s authentic translational skills, the spicy Cajun swing of “Ma Belle Marie,” the field Blues-meets-banjo porch stomp of “Medicine Man” and the plugged/unplugged Americana lilt of “Like Any Other.”

The range exhibited in these four songs would indicate a pretty flexible band, but Magnolia Mountain is far from showing off its endless versatility. They make a credible Gospel outfit on “I Do Believe,” Bluegrass doesn’t come much bluer than “Early Morning Train” and they turn out pure Country and Folk goodness on “Savannah” and “Home,” respectively. And, as Todd Rundgren once rightly noted, still there is more, from the Country Blues ache of “Long Gone Lonesome Blues” and the pure Blues scorch of “Opalene” to the Rockabilly rave-up of “Hellbound Train” and the Neil Young-channels-Bruce Springsteen modern economic Dust Bowl balladry of the title track.

Most bands couldn’t achieve that kind of wide variety on a single release, let alone sustain it over the course of 70 minutes and not have it sound like a muddled genre mish-mash or a forced effort to please too many disparate listeners. That may be Magnolia Mountain’s most valuable asset — they have the rare ability to inhabit any branch of Roots music and still sound unmistakably like Magnolia Mountain.

The Cat Empire’s last album, 2007’s Two Shoes, was an amazing introduction to the Melbourne collective, an irresistible blend of propulsively ass-motoring styles — from Ska to Tropicalia to Hip Hop to Pub Rock to Reggae to Second Line Jazz — that could have jump-started the comatose dance muscle memory of the most moribund music listener. Two Shoes was a frenetic example of the multi-platinum dance party that The Cat Empire had been throwing for their Australian fans since their 1999 inception, but the irony was that the album was actually the Cat Empire’s 2005 sophomore album, which had debuted at No. 1 on the Australian charts two years previously. By the time Two Shoes found a U.S. label, the band had already released two more albums at home.

For that reason, The Cat Empire’s new album, Cinema, might feel like a disconnect for anyone who was converted by the adrenalized madness of Two Shoes, and that would be understandable. The Cat Empire has clearly evolved and matured over the course of two albums that have been largely unheard in the wake of Two Shoes. Those albums are missing links in the listening chain when it comes to Cinema, the band’s first album to be released almost simultaneously in Australia and the States.

Cinema is certainly more reflective, lyrically darker and less manic than Two Shoes, but The Cat Empire remains enamored of a wide variety of musical styles. The hook on Cinema is that the band has become more adept at finding their own voice among their varied influences and, rather than pursuing a wildly veering musical course, has established a more consistent stock with those influences bubbling up from time to time like disparate ingredients in a delicious gumbo. For fans of the schizophrenically wonderful Two Shoes, Cinema might seem a bit of a letdown but, even without the benefit of hearing the albums that came between, the album seems like a natural progression for The Cat Empire.

Like its namesake, Cinema is broadly expansive and yet intricately detailed, the sum of incredibly diverse parts yet surprisingly consistent. It succeeds in spite and perhaps because of its disjointed yet thematic nature. The Cat Empire may have created a quieter triumph in Cinema, but it is a triumph all the same.

Jimmie Vaughan was the first to go into the family music business when he started playing Blues around Austin, Tex., in the mid-’60s, establishing solid guitar cred and a unique sound in a town packed to the rafters with singularly great players. Vaughan’s reputation in Texas grew exponentially in the ’60s and ’70s. His band opened for the Jimi Hendrix Experience in 1969, he formed a succession of bands (with eventual big names like Lou Ann Barton and ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons) before co-founding the well regarded Fabulous Thunderbirds with vocalist/harpist Kim Wilson.

When label overseers watered down the Thunderbirds’ raucous Blues sound in order to sell more albums, Vaughan quit the band in 1989 and recorded a duo album with his suddenly famous guitarist brother, Stevie Ray. Their collaboration as the Vaughan Brothers, Family Style, came out in September 1990, just a month after Stevie Ray’s death in a helicopter accident in Wisconsin, which was followed three years later by Vaughan’s first true solo album, 1994’s Strange Pleasure.

Vaughan’s solo career has been erratic (there’s a fair case to be made that he was deeply and detrimentally affected by Stevie Ray’s tragic death) but still successful. He’s won four Grammys, two for Family Style, one for “SRV Shuffle” in 1996 and one for his last original solo album, 2001’s Do You Get the Blues?.

The title of his latest album, Plays Blues, Ballads & Favorites, is a hand-tipping hint that Vaughan is largely sticking with the covers formula of his 2008 album, On the Jimmy Reed Highway, with Omar and the Howlers’ Omar Kent Dykes. There’s only one original on PBB&F — the instrumental rave-up “Comin’ & Goin’ ” — everything else on the album is, as the title suggests, favorites from Vaughan’s Texas Blues upbringing. The set list runs from a swinging version of Johnny Ace’s “How Can You be So Mean” to Little Richard’s New Orleans-spiced “Send Me Some Lovin’” to Willie Nelson’s weeper “Funny How Time Slips Away.” It’s a stripped down affair as well, much in the ’50s style of Vaughan’s personal heroes Freddy King and Johnny “Guitar” Watson, with an appropriately greased back horn section and Vaughan’s not-a-note-wasted guitar ministrations.

As much as anything on PBB&F, longtime Vaughan fans will be celebrating his reunion with Lou Ann Barton, who duets with Vaughan (“Come Love,” “I’m Leaving It Up to You,” “I Miss You So”) and takes the occasional lead vocal (“Wheel of Fortune,” “Send Me Some Lovin’”).

Plays Blues, Ballads & Favorites is a great example of Jimmie Vaughan’s Blues roots and translational skills. Here’s hoping he applies this same formula to an album of originals the next time out.

Walter Trout’s résumé after nearly 40 years of playing unapologetically electric Blues is among the most impressive within the genre. Trout was a touring guitarist for the likes of Joe Tex, Big Mama Thornton and John Lee Hooker before accepting an offer to join Canned Heat, which led to a long gig with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. In the late ’80s, Mayall’s unexpected illness and absence from a gig forced Trout to the front of the stage, the success of which inspired him to launch his solo career.

The New Jersey-born/California-based vocalist/guitarist has had some spectacular success in the two decades since that fateful decision, particularly in Holland, where he captivated a festival crowd of half a million and released a Blues ballad from his second solo disc that kept Madonna from claiming the No. 1 spot on the Dutch singles chart.

In the intervening years, Trout has maintained a fairly regular release schedule, putting out a dozen or so studio albums, a number of live discs and a couple of retrospectives, including last year’s Unspoiled by Progress, a collection of unreleased tracks and a trio of new songs. There isn’t any huge style swing within Trout’s repertoire — he plays scorching electric Blues with an occasional acoustic interlude, all within the framework established by his former employer and friend John Mayall, the long line of British Blues Rock interpreters and, of course, the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Trout’s latest studio album, Common Ground, follows his established template with little deviation since, as a wise man once noted, an unbroken thing makes repair largely unnecessary. Walter Trout’s smoking hot electric Blues is most assuredly an unbroken thing.

Common Ground snaps to attention with the propulsive “Maybe a Fool,” then cools down with the acoustic-cool-to-electric-hot “Open Book,” a swelling, soaring ballad that wouldn’t sound out of place in a Joe Bonamassa or Kenny Wayne Shepherd set list. Trout does heartbreak with a Bluesman’s tortured soul (“Her Other Man”), switches to a funky swing without a batted eye (“Danger Zone”), self-references with a practiced ease (the gentle “Song for My Guitar”) and dusts the rafters with roadhouse chops (the visceral “Wrapped Up in the Blues”).

There’s nothing groundbreakingly evolutionary or revolutionary about Common Ground, it’s simply Walter Trout doing with words, wood and wires what he does best, which is shredding contemporary electric Blues played with the poise and confidence of a millionaire peeling off hundred dollar bills for a little bar tab and a big tip.

Kylie Minogue is Australia’s Britney Spears, without the emotional instability, substance issues and scissors. Minogue began on television at age 11 with roles in popular soap operas, but clearly had designs on a music career. At 17, she sang on a weekly talent program (where her younger sister Danni was a regular) but didn’t make the cut. The following year, she was cast in the soap opera Neighbours and became an audience favorite. In 1987, during a Neighbours promotional appearance, she sang “I Got You Babe” and “The Loco-Motion,” garnering a recording contract as a result. The single recording of “The Loco-Motion” topped Australian charts for seven weeks and began her hugely successful worldwide string of hit singles and albums.

Although critics sometimes referred to her as “The Singing Budgie,” her girl-next-door image and safe Dance/Pop style made her hugely popular. At one point, Minogue charted 13 consecutive Top 10 singles in England. In the early ’90s, she wanted to be taken seriously as a sophisticated artist and retooled her image to include sexual awareness and maturity, embarking on a relationship with INXS frontman Michael Hutchence (he said subsequently that the song “Suicide Blonde” was inspired by Minogue).

Her first taste of artistic respect was “Where the Wild Roses Grow,” her 1995 duet with Nick Cave. She credited Cave with encouraging her creative growth from that point. Minogue’s work after that continued in a Dance Pop vein, but she added in elements of Synth Pop and Electronica, and her 2002 album Fever became her first real American success, followed by the less successful but equally ambitious Body Language in 2003. Minogue’s 2005 breast cancer diagnosis/surgery/chemo cycle was a setback, but she came back strong in 2007 with X, her tenth album. Over the course of her long career, Minogue has sold nearly 70 million albums worldwide, generated billions of dollars of revenue on her world tours and collected dozens of major music awards, including a Grammy, a good many Brit and ARIA awards and a British OBE for service to music. Earlier this year, Minogue was named the most powerful celebrity in Great Britain by marketing researchers.

Given all this (and there’s more, believe me — Madame Tussaud’s has made four waxwork figures of Minogue, a number second only to Queen Elizabeth II), it’s possible that Minogue’s 11th album, Aphrodite, might seem almost bulletproof from a critical perspective. And that could lead to a further supposition that Minogue’s built-in success just might result in a lessened effort on her part. Nothing could be further from the truth. Minogue has been compared to Madonna for so long that she seems driven to live up to the comparison while establishing her own identity in the Dance Pop universe. Aphrodite accomplishes both goals.

Minogue works with a veritable “who’s who” of songwriting talent on the album, including Keane’s Tim Rice-Oxley, Scissor Sisters’ Jake Shears and Babydaddy and writer/producer RedOne (Lady Gaga, Sean Kingston, many others) among them. Clearly, an affinity for Dance Pop is a prerequisite, but Minogue has been elevating the genre for a long time and Aphrodite follows that curve, from the Madonna-worthy “Better Than Today” and the club-ready anthem “Too Much” to the Indie Pop beat bounce-meets-Kraftwerk pulse of “Cupid Boy” and the album’s throbbing title track, which sounds like a tribal Dance cross between Kate Bush and Britney at her musical and emotional best.

Whether Aphrodite matches Fever and Body Language as a Stateside hit is pretty much beside the point; the rest of the world loves Kylie Minogue and that seems to suit her quite well.

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