I’m still getting used to my new digs here at The Daily Beat as everyone rushes about, delivering their stories with right-this-minute immediacy and what not. Of course, with my continuing effort to bring you up to date on the reviews from last summer and fall that were missed for a variety of reasons, my breaking news has all the timeliness of “Bin Laden is dead!” and “I’m so happy for Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries — it’s nice to see a celebrity couple in it for the long haul.”
Luckily, the early weeks of this new year, with a couple of well-stocked exceptions, are pretty light on titles, allowing me the time and space to revisit some deserving highlights from bygone months while checking out the latest and greatest from the new calendar. Wait, there’s something coming across the teletype in the Bunker — apparently, the war is over! The Falkland Islands are free at last!
Celebrate with new reviews, then some old reviews. Then a drink and possibly a nap.—-
• There are several unlikely supergroups and a few that are inexplicable, and then there is The Little Willies. If you were to randomly sample the catalogs of slinky Jazz/Pop chanteuse Norah Jones and atmospheric Pop/Rock guitarist Richard Julian, any subsequent pondering on the nature of a collaboration between the two (and they’ve worked together plenty; he’s played guitar on her tours and recorded his last album, 2010’s Girls Need Attention, at her home studio) would probably not veer anywhere near Classic Country. Regardless of expectations, Jones, Julian and a crack band of NYC sessioners assembled in 2003 around a collective love of the genre and began playing sporadic shows and benefits, leading to their eponymous 2006 debut which, just as unexpectedly, hit the Top 10 of the Country charts and nicked the Top 50 on the Pop side.
The Little Willies’ sophomore album, For the Good Times, generally follows the blueprint of their debut as the quintet (Jones, Julian, guitarist Jim Campilongo, bassist Lee Alexander, drummer Dan Reiser) revisits some well traveled Country classics and polishes them to a contemporary but respectfully authentic glow. Given their professional pedigree, it’s hard to suppress the smoky late night Jazz vibe that emanates from the Little Willies even at their hillbilliest, from Ralph Stanley’s “I Worship You” and the much-covered, recorded-in-Cincinnati “Lovesick Blues” to Loretta Lynn’s scorned woman anthem “Fist City” and Lefty Frizell’s honky tonking “If You’ve Got the Money I’ve Got the Time.” In this context, the vocal similarities between Julian and Lyle Lovett are easy to pick out, particularly on “Diesel Smoke, Dangerous Curves” and Johnny Cash’s “Wide Open Road,” while Jones’ expressive Jazz phrasing lends itself well to weepers like Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” and the title track, written by Kris Kristofferson and immortalized by Ray Price.
Unlike the Little Willies’ debut album, For the Good Times offers just one original, the Surfabilly stomp of the largely instrumental “Tommy Rockwood,” written by Campilongo, but they throw in a true curve ball with their rendition of “Foul Owl on the Prowl,” the redneck ode that Quincy Jones and the Bergmans penned for the 1967 film In the Heat of the Night. The Little Willies might be the big city version of Country but, as evidenced by For the Good Times, it’s not done with a sense of hipster irony but rather with an abiding love for the genre and an immense amount of musical talent.
• After five albums and 17 years, Irish quintet Snow Patrol has grown into a multi-platinum arena draw at home and a fairly respectable Pop act everywhere else in the world. Since the band’s 2004 breakout hit, Final Straw, their focus has shifted to simplistic lyrical concerns and a musical emphasis on bombast for its own sake, but frontman Gary Lightbody’s recent bout of writer’s block seems to have revitalized Snow Patrol on their sixth and consistently excellent album, Fallen Empires.
The difference is evident from the opening tracks, the insistent “I’ll Never Let Go” and the majestic “Called Out in the Dark,” as bubbling synths, thundering bass and sinewy, fuzzy guitar lines form a solid foundation for Lightbody’s compelling vocal contributions, a powerful hybrid of Richard Thompson and Eddie Vedder. Amazingly, they merely hint at the expansive heights that Snow Patrol hits on the remainder of Fallen Empires, from the U2-tinted rattle and hum of “The Weight of Love” to the textural balladic beauty of “This Isn’t Everything You Are” to the churning tribal Pop of the title track.
While Snow Patrol has endured numerous comparisons to Coldplay and U2 because they rely on similar sonic touchstones, Fallen Empires finds the band evolving their own passionately unique identity within that construct.
• OK, quick show of hands. Who among us, even the most religiously devoted fan, would ever have imagined tuning into the Academy Award broadcast and hearing “... and the Oscar goes to ...Trent Reznor”? Reznor dug his Nine Inch Nails into our collective backs and drove them into our collective ears — it hurt so good that we rewarded him with gold and platinum, but few of us would have dared to think that he would transform that synthetic howl into a musical score that would earn both respect and votes from the Hollywood community. Of course, Reznor and his studio partner Atticus Ross didn’t work from a NIN base for their atmospheric accompaniment to The Social Network. They concocted a moody, minor-key elegy to provide dramatic weight to a story about the creation of Facebook, which wouldn’t seem, on the surface, to have any dramatic impact at all, which may well be the reason for handing Reznor and Ross the mantle bling.
But NIN’s fury and bile may be the bigger motivation for Social Network director David Fincher to re-team with Reznor for the score to his Hollywood version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Where Reznor and Ross designed The Social Network’s musical bed as an exercise in Ambient mood upholstery, the duo have more latitude on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to create a score that reinforces the visceral brutality of the story. And while that is precisely what film music is supposed to do, there are more than enough instances where disturbing movies are decorated with orchestral passages that merely hint at bad things to come. Reznor and Ross aren’t content with that, preferring to create a synergistic score that is every bit as unsettling and hair-raising as the images that it accompanies.
Just like the best of Nine Inch Nails, dread and horror lurk in every note of the music for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, starting with the duo’s adrenalized version of Led Zeppelin (with lead vocals from Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman Karen O). What follows is nearly three hours of musical imagery that is the sonic equal to the visual maelstrom that Fincher created in Dragon Tattoo. Reznor and Ross evoke the darkness and desolation of the film’s physical and emotional environment, ultimately creating an actual body of music rather than a series of musical sounds designed to propel the film’s action.
Combining the benign yet menacing Ambient chill of Brian Eno with the harrowing psychosonic mindmelt of the Residents and Reznor’s own mesmerizing power to abrade and rattle, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have crafted a brilliantly effective soundscape for Fincher’s vision of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
• Regional music fans are well aware of Red Wanting Blue, the Athens-formed, Columbus-based Prog/Pop quintet that has amassed a slavishly loyal audience over the past decade and a half without any substantive corporate assistance from industry entities. Fronted by Scott Terry, the band’s sole constant, RWB has self-released eight albums of muscular and moving contemporary Rock and fashioned themselves into a powerful touring machine. All that changed, to a certain extent, when Terry and RWB signed with Fanatic two years ago; the label’s first order of business was to reissue RWB’s excellent last album, 2008’s These Magnificent Miles, in order to introduce the band to a broader fan base that might not have been exposed to them. While continuing to tour on Miles, RWB began working on the songs that would comprise their first ever label-affiliated album, the just-released From the Vanishing Point.
For anyone fearful that RWB’s signing would somehow taint their sound or process, rest assured that Terry has retained complete control of the band and their official label debut is as engaging as anything in their fully independent catalog. RWB trades in populist Modern Rock, like The Verve Pipe if they’d been steered by a love of Bruce Springsteen, and From the Vanishing Point definitely ramps up that vibe. From the R.E.M./Pearl Jam-as-heartland-rockers slam of “White Snow” and the Hootie twang-and-swing of “Cocaine” to the Bob Seger-in-the-new-millennium swagger-and-sway of “Hope on a Rope” and the Crash Test Dummies-tinted “Ballad of Nobodies,” with its sadly accurate and nearly universal observation (“Real love, real love, I don’t know what I did but I think I fucked up...”), RWB surrounds their tough sonic core with an emotionally tender coating, effectively combining their anthemic and balladic sides into a gently powerful whole and proving they belong in a brighter spotlight.
• What influences an influence? The answer to that question forms the core of legendary guitarist Steve Cropper’s new album, Dedicated, which Cropper and a host of impressive and high profile guests use to tribute The 5 Royales and their largely unsung guitarist/songwriter Lowman “Pete” Pauling. A funky R&B quintet that recorded in the early ’50s before Rock got its hooks into teenagers of the era, the 5 Royales blended Blues, Jazz, R&B and Doo Wop to create a sound that was comfortably familiar and yet wildly unique. The 5 Royales never achieved the kind of broad acceptance that was lavished on some of their peers (although their fans exposed their work by covering it; James Brown revamped “Think” twice, Ray Charles offered his take on “Tell the Truth,” and The Shirelles and Mamas and the Papas did different versions of “Dedicated to the One I Love”), but they were revered by everyone who gave them half a chance.
Cropper was introduced to the group by bassist Duck Dunn when they were in a band together in high school; the guitarist was so taken by the 5 Royales’ sound that, after seeing them perform in Memphis, he fashioned a long guitar strap like the one he’d seen Pauling employ in his set and began emulating the Royale’s shuffling rhythm. When asked who looms largest as far influences are concerned, Cropper has never failed to cite Pauling and The 5 Royales.
On Dedicated, Cropper pays back that influence with interest. Cropper started with a crack band consisting of bassist David Hood, keyboardist Spooner Oldham, drummers Steve Ferrone and Steve Jordan and saxophonists Neal Sugarman and Jon Tiven, and augmented that stellar roll call with an even more impressive circle of guest vocalists, including B.B. King, Shemekia Copeland, Steve Winwood, Betty LaVette, Sharon Jones, Delbert McClinton, John Popper, Buddy Miller, Brian May, Dan Penn, Keb Mo and the incomparable Lucinda Williams, among others.
Cropper and his all-star revue wisely avoid updating the Royales’ simple R&B odes beyond contemporary instrumentation and production, allowing the songs to retain their sometimes creaky but always authentic classicism. Pauling’s half century-old compositions come to blazing life through the auspices of Cropper’s gifted band, particularly with the help of some of music’s most distinctive voices; Winwood tears through “Thirty Second Lover,” King and Copeland team up like dueling magicians on “Baby Don’t Do It,” Jones rattles and rolls on “Messin’ Up” and “Come On & Save Me,” Williams moans up a storm on “Dedicated to the One I Love” and “When I Get Like This” and LaVette smolders and sparks through “Say It” and “Don’t Be Ashamed.”
Fans of The 5 Royales, rare though they may be today, will find the covers on Dedicated both fresh and true to the spirit of the originals and fans of Cropper and his incredible cast will be delighted with their contributions while discovering the source of their individual and collective sounds.
• Pepper Rabbit bounces around in a sonic triangulation between the obfuscated Pop wonder of The Shins, the bombastically simple swell of Polyphonic Spree and the Electro Pop shimmer of Best Coast. Comprised of the multi-instrumentalist duo of Xander Singh and Luc Laurent, Pepper Rabbit works an avant garde Chamber Pop groove that hints at the polyrhythmic shiver of Vampire Weekend with a greater emphasis on experimentation and exploration.
There was a good deal more of that on Pepper Rabbit’s debut, 2009’s Beauregard, but Singh and Laurent haven’t sanded off all of their sonic rough edges on their sophomore effort, Red Velvet Snowball. And while they offer plenty of contemporary Indie Pop verve and vigor on Snowball, from the James Mercer-channeled “Allison” and the noisy orchestral charm of the gorgeous “Im Search of Simon Birch,” there is a certain amount of last generation classicism at its heart as well, with the kind of Pop flourishes and oddities that have appointed the best works of studio geniuses like Paul McCartney (“The Annexation of Puerto Rico”) and Todd Rundgren (“Dance Card”).
The sad fact is that Singh and Laurent announced just after the first of the year that they have decided to shelve Pepper Rabbit; Laurent has taken a gig behind the kit with Islands and Singh will presumably carry on as a gifted solo act or assemble a new outfit. His output as Pepper Rabbit seems like a mere hint at his potential going forward.