Holly Williams, Big Star, Candye Kane and Clock Hands Strangle

I'm once again foregoing my vinyl burn this week and keeping the reviews on the light side. Next week looks to be absolutely packed with titles (a quick count reveals at least 14 discs and a DVD in the stacks that I could cover). This week I check out ne

Jun 23, 2009 at 2:06 pm

I’m working on finding the rhythm of working with my daughter at home for the summer. In some ways, it’s easier than when she was really little and required constant attention, since she has the ability to generate her own entertainment options.

On the other hand, it’s slightly more difficult now because her threshold of boredom has dropped dramatically and once she hits it she’s in my office, wondering if we have errands to run, what we’re doing for lunch and if I want to take a break and play some Wii or go to the pool. Which I’m finding the time to do.

A few more years and she’ll be gone and focusing on her own life and it’s “cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon,” been real nice talking to you Dad all over again. I raised my son from my first marriage at arm’s length; one weekend a month for 16 years, occasional Christmas and summer visits, lots of phone calls in between.

We have a great relationship, but it wasn’t an ideal way to get there. I’m trying to take every opportunity to get time in with my daughter while I can.

And still get some work done. I am once again foregoing my vinyl burn this week and keeping the reviews on the light side. Next week looks to be absolutely packed with titles (a quick count reveals at least 14 discs and a DVD in the stacks that I could cover) but it falls off slightly in the subsequent weeks, so I’ll likely be filling in the upcoming gaps with some of the titles that have fallen through the cracks recently. In the meantime, dig in and dig on.

Being a Williams in Nashville is a little like being a Ford in Detroit; much is expected and little is forgiven. There was a time when Hank Williams Jr. tried desperately to be the same kind of Country singer/songwriter as his iconic father before reinventing himself as a Country Rock innovator. And Hank III has mounted a strenuous campaign to be as musically unclassifiable as humanly possible, sprinkling his traditional Country catalog with Thrash Metal to establish a distance from his long shadowed genetics. Holly Williams is perhaps in the most enviable position of all of Hank Sr.’s ancestors; as the first girl with the famous surname, there’s no applicable yardstick to measure her against and fewer expectations as a result.

Williams’ 2004 debut, The Ones We Never Knew, was a subdued, balladic affair, reflecting Folk and Pop influences as well as her Country heritage, her contemporary love of minor-key Pop figures like Elliott Smith and Neil Finn and the fact that she was a 23-year-old novice with an impossibly famous name. On her latest album, Here with Me, Williams connects more directly with her Country roots, applying her amazingly rich voice to songs that run the gamut from the Shawn Colvin Folk shimmer of “He’s Making a Fool Out of You” to the Mary Chapin Carpenter Country Pop chug of “Let Her Go” and “Keep the Change.”

Williams uses her family history as song fodder but not distractively; on “Mama,” she thanks her mother for not making a villain out of her absent father, and on the ostensible title track, “Without Jesus Here with Me,” Williams addresses the car crash that nearly killed her three years ago, name-checking both her grandfather and God’s son as her saviors, while admitting that she still doesn’t channel the latter nearly as much as the former.

Perhaps the most moving moment on Here with Me is Williams’ closing cover of Neil Young’s “Birds,” an emotionally engaging song in any circumstance but made more so with just Williams’ powerfully sensitive voice and plaintive piano. Here with Me is solid proof that Holly Williams has all the necessary cred to succeed in the family business.

I once asked Steve Wynn if he was at all bitter about the fact that a good many bands that had been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame had name-checked his largely obscure and commercially marginal Dream Syndicate as an influence. Wynn’s amazingly candid answer was that he would always pick influence over monetary success. He rightly noted that money and fame are fleeting but influence is forever. An artist can only be inducted into the Hall of Fame once but an influence can be represented dozens of times.

In that respect, Big Star might never gain acceptance into the Hall, but their sound has infiltrated music and culture in surprising ways. Cheap Trick’s cover of “In the Street” from Big Star’s 1972 debut, #1 Record, will be blaring out of television sets as the theme song to That ’70s Show for many years to come.

More profoundly, Big Star’s combination of Memphis Soul and rootsy Rock with a progressive Pop edge became a template for countless bands over the subsequent three and a half decades and, as evidenced by the fresh remastering of their first two albums, #1 Record and Radio City, their influence will be rippling through the musical cosmos for generations.

#1 Record is clearly the more coherent and substantive of the two. Big Star was at its best with ex-Box Top Alex Chilton and Memphis Pop wunderkind Chris Bell working together. Opener “Feel” sets the tone of #1 Record, sounding like the Raspberries if they’d been from Memphis instead of Cleveland, which is followed by the most gorgeous ballad of the ’70s, “The Ballad of El Goodo,” a gene splice of the Byrds and the Beach Boys that remains as compelling and fresh today as it was in 1972. Add in the Kinks/Beatles rave up of “Don’t Lie to Me” and the Brit Folk lilt of “The India Song” and the Traffic Prog/Folk Pop Americanization of “When My Baby’s Beside Me” and a few other slices of sterling Soul/Pop, and you have one of the greatest albums of the past 40 years.

Radio City is slightly more quirky but every bit as great. Bell left the band for a solo career (he did one amazing album, I Am the Cosmos, before tragically losing his life in a 1979 car accident) but still had a major hand in the album, although he refused credit for his work (the band is depicted as a trio on the cover). All of Big Star’s British Pop influences, so prevalent on #1 Record, were still clearly evident on Radio City but were being assimilated into the band’s uniquely American Pop sensibility, particularly on the Dylan-rocks-out vibe of “You Get What You Deserve,” the T.Rex-as-American-Pop swing of “Mod Lang” and the transcendent Pop of “September Gurls,” the song that would serve as one of Cheap Trick’s most potent compass posts.

Separately, the albums are impressive but taken together on a single disc, it’s obvious that #1 Record and Radio City may have been one of the most impressive debut/sophomore album combinations in modern Rock history. (For fans who already have this collection in its 1992 configuration, note that this reissue contains two extra tracks: the single mixes of “In the Street” and “O My Soul.”)

Colorful doesn’t begin to describe Candye Kane’s life. Absent father, ill-tempered mother who taught her to shoplift at 9. Enrolled in the USC Conservatory’s junior opera program at 11. Playing in Country Punk bands and pregnant at 17. Adult model and porn star at 18. Signed to a CBS developmental deal at 20 but dropped when they found out about all of the above.

Perhaps the most important event in Kane’s life occurred when she stumbled upon Blues greats like Ruth Brown, Bessie Smith, Etta James and Big Mama Thornton, women who overcame dysfunctional lives and celebrated their independence and sexuality in their music. That was when Kane steered her musical direction down the Blues/Jazz path. Over the past 18 years, she has released eight albums 00 including her major label bow, the Blues/Swing Swango, and her last album, 2007’s Guitar’d and Feathered — and numerous compilations, including her contribution to Hard Headed Woman, Bloodshot’s tribute to Wanda Jackson.

The real story of Kane’s ninth album, Superhero, is its very existence. Last February, Kane was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, one of the disease’s deadliest forms. Thinking her chances were slim, she set her affairs in order and began treatment. Miraculously, she beat the odds and survived and that joy of living in the face of almost certain death is all over Superhero, from the brassy Bakersfield Blues of the disc’s opening title track to the swinging “Hey! Toughen Up” to the Kurt-Weill-sings-the-Blues lope of “Don’t Cry for Me New Jersey.”

In many ways, it’s business as usual for Kane, as she once again gleefully trumpets her pride in her unconventional life and lifestyle — her cover of “I’m a Bad, Bad Girl,” her side-splitting take on Jack Tempchin’s “Till You Go Too Far” and her ode to plus-size love in “I Like ’Em Stacked Like That,” a duet with Kid Ramos. But even as Kane revisits themes that have been a part of her repertoire from the beginning of her career, it’s hard to miss the added zest that Kane brings to her standard party on Superhero as she flies her cancer-free freak flag. Long may it wave.

Florida has typically spawned a ton of Death Metal and Latin bands with an occasional Tom Petty thrown in to screw up the curve. But with their visceral Indie spin on everything from Bob Dylan to ’70s Prog to Nick Drake, Clock Hands Strangle doesn’t fall into any of the standard Sunshine State categories. The quintet has a penchant for thematics (their 2007 debut, Redshift/Blueshift, was generally viewed as a concept album, although that may have been too strong a label) and the band’s sophomore album, Distaccati, follows to the extent that vocalist/lyricist Todd Portnowitz tends to write about related things in an amazingly poetic manner.

On Distaccati, Portnowitz is absorbed by environments but not with an obvious Roger-Waters-unburdens-his-soul methodology, and the band provides a soundtrack that veers madly from Dylanesque Folk (“To a Meteorite in a Museum”) to Bare Jr.-style Southern Pop Rock (“Desert Music”) to Violent Femmes tinged Indie Pop (“As Is”) to Clem Snide flavored odes (“New York,” “Cotton”) in support of Portnowitz’s lyrical perspective. Distaccati isn’t blazingly original but it isn’t distractively derivative either. Like Redshift/Blueshift, Clock Hands Strangle have created a highly listenable set of songs whose greatest sin may be referencing more genres than the average listener can handle. And that’s no sin in my book.