It’s been a fairly good week. Nothing significant in the news has pushed my outrage button, though I’m still not sure how to interpret the FCC’s loss/Comcast’s win in federal court over their dispute concerning Internet neutrality. I suspect that between government and business the loser is always going to be us, regardless of the issue.
Death’s hairy hand hasn’t mowed down any of my childhood heroes that I’m aware of, but my condolences to Jazz fans, who lost ubercool guitarist Herb Ellis on Easter Sunday.
So all’s relatively well as far as I can tell. More good news for anyone who doesn’t like suffering through my opening remarks but, of course, for them the scroll bar isn’t an option, it’s a necessity.
There are a lot of reviews this week, so get your read on …
Jakob Dylan has certainly traveled an interesting path over the past decade and a half. The first hurdle to clear was the almost insurmountable impact of his famous surname and the inevitable comparisons that would be drawn between his work and that of his impossibly legendary father.
With The Wallflowers, Jakob Dylan silenced the skeptics and carved out a string of successes with his band, accomplishing the Herculean task of earning respect as an artist in his own right. The handling of that challenge emboldened Dylan to take the next logical step; a solo album away from the comfortable confines of the hugely successful Wallflowers. 2008’s Seeing Things showed that Dylan was equally at home in the glare of a single spotlight and once again answered critics who doubted the legitimacy of an icon’s son.
On his sophomore solo effort, Women and Country, Dylan stacks the deck in his favor with producer T Bone Burnett (who helmed Bringing Down the House, The Wallflowers’ defining 1996 album) and a band skilled at creating music dripping with atmosphere, including guitarist Marc Ribot, pedal steeler Greg Leisz, multi-instrumentalist David Mansfield and drummer Jay Bellerose. And for good measure, eight of the album’s 11 tracks feature backing vocals from Neko Case and Kelly Hogan.
For his part, Dylan provides an evocative and melancholic set of bare-boned songs for he and his compatriots to mold into sparse classics of rootsy blues. The album’s opening track, “Nothing But the Whole Wide World,” is a Gospel Folk spiritual that gives Bruce Cockburn a run for his collection-plate money, “Down on Our Own Shield” shows that fruit never falls far from the tree and “Lend a Hand” sounds like a jazzy New Orleans tribute to Tom Waits. There are any number of transcendent moments on Women and Country — Dylan and Case harmonizing with a weary beauty on the roll call of timeless trouble in “Everybody’s Hurtin’,” the shimmery, twangy Roots Pop of “Holy Rollers for Love,” and the expansively moving “Truth for a Truth.”
Throughout it all, Dylan, Burnett and their musical shamans conjure a palpable texture for Dylan’s songs, a sound wrought with the dusty ambient authenticity of a high prairie wind humming across high power lines. Whether with The Wallflowers or on his own, with each successive release, Jakob Dylan is making a solid case for a Hall of Fame pedestal right next to the old man.
Two years ago, Australian superstar guitar hero John Butler decided to make some changes in his life after a grueling world tour supporting his massive global hit, Grand National. Butler cut his hair, dissolved his trio and settled back to relax and write songs for his next album, taking time to appear on the Australian version of the celebrity genealogy television show, Who Do You Think You Are? The discovery of revolutionary thinkers and doers in his bloodline was a profoundly enlightening experience for Butler and the revelations served as a vital inspiration for his new album, April Uprising.
Freshly energized and sporting a new rhythm section in bassist Byron Luiters and drummer Nicky Bomba, Butler retains the stylistic blueprint of his previous albums — incisive and socially aware lyrics set to a soundtrack comprised of contemporarily classic Guitar Rock flecked with Hip Hop rhythms — while dialing everything up a notch or three.
Album opener “Revolution” mixes U2 anthemics with Dave Matthews atmospherics, “One Way Road” bounces along on a Red Hot Chili Peppers groove and “C’mon Now” sounds like a two-and-a-half rhythmic Pop distillation of everything Lindsey Buckingham did on Tusk. Butler shows off his estimable banjo skills on the moodily driven “Ragged Mile,” blends his stylistic gifts with a dash of Mark Knopfler’s Skiffle guitar gallop on the true crime headline of “Johnny’s Gone,” nods to The Police and Ben Harper simultaneously on “Close to You,” shows John Mayer how to write a gorgeous ballad on “Mystery Man” and cooks ethereal guitar Pop to a soulful balladic burn on the hit-in-waiting “Steal It.”
With April Uprising, John Butler has managed to expand and intensify his musical palette without sacrificing a molecule of the subtlety and grace that has already earned him a large and loyal following.
It’s been nearly a quarter century since BoDeans came roaring out of Waukesha, Wisc., with the inherent power of populist rockers like Bruce Springsteen and Bon Jovi, a pure love of the Rolling Stones’ Rock classicism and a heartland sincerity that's defined them throughout their long history. The group’s late ’80s-to-mid-’90s output earned them a good deal of respect (Rolling Stone dubbed them the Best New American Band in 1987) but little in the way of real commercial success (although they certainly had charting singles) until the jangly and anthemic “Closer to Free” put them in the mainstream consciousness as the theme song for Party of Five nearly three years after the release of Go Slow Down, the album that spawned the song. Although 1996’s Blend largely followed suit, the BoDeans suffered from Warner Brothers’ benign neglect, and although “Hurt by Love” nicked the Top 40 it was the band’s last single to hit the charts at all.
For the latter part of their history, after a long hiatus for solo projects, the BoDeans have been label hopping (Warners woke up to their potential and released archival and "best of" albums) while generally staying within the template that Kurt Neumann and Sammy Llanas established three decades ago.
With their ninth studio album and debut for 429 Records, Mr. Sad Clown, the duo display a weary maturity that reflects some of the knocks and bruises that they’ve sustained over the years. And while they can still open up the throttle (“Say Goodbye,” “Feel Lil Love”), they ease into the higher gears gently.
In fact, the majority of the songs on Mr. Sad Clown shimmer with sweet, melodic melancholy as Neumann and Llanas narrow their anthemic focus and begin examining the personal moments that loom larger in life’s third act. The examination of love well lived in “If...,” the quiet and disturbing realizations of “Gone X 3” and “All the Blues,” respectively, the larger concerns of “Headed for the End of the World,” the reality of the passage of time in “Stay” and the absolute perfection of now in “Shine” all glow with the warmth and gradual awareness of sunrise.
It wouldn’t be too much of a surprise if the next BoDeans album found Neumann and Llanas blowing the rust out of the carburetor, but for now the contemplative ache of Mr. Sad Clown is a scenic detour from the admittedly appealing frat party Roots Rock of their earlier work.
If the name Christine Ohlman doesn’t spark any memory cells, one look at her photo will remind you that she is the long tenured chick vocalist with the impossibly high bouffant in the Saturday Night Live house band. Ohlman began her career nearly three decades ago with G.E. Smith‘s Scratch Band, which gave her an in for the SNL gig; she ultimately formed the Rebel Montez band and released three studio albums (1995’s The Hard Way, 1999’s Wicked Time, 2003’s Strip) and a live set (1997’s Radio Queen) while maintaining her bee-hived presence on SNL.
Ohlman has been on studio hiatus for the past seven years, recovering from the deaths of her producer/significant other Doc Cavalier and founding Rebel Montez guitarist Eric Fletcher. With Rebel Montez newly reconstituted, Ohlman collaborated with John Mellencamp producer Andy York to create what may stand as Ohlman’s Soul/Pop/Blues masterwork, The Deep End.
Frontloaded with a stellar array of guests (G.E. Smith, producer/artist Eric “Roscoe” Ambel, former NRBQ guitarist Al Anderson, the Asbury Jukes horns, among others), Ohlman and Rebel Montez concoct a Soul atmosphere as thick and palpable as a humid Southern night. Ohlman’s voice is a dusky, supple thing of dark Soul beauty, like a gene splice of Dusty Springfield and Delbert McClinton. She sells the album’s handful of covers with aching authenticity, from her duets with Marshall Crenshaw on the Marvin Gaye/Mary Wells classic “What’s the Matter with You Baby” and with the incomparable Dion on “Cry Baby Cry.”
But the standouts on The Deep End are Ohlman’s stunning originals, which blister and soothe in equal measure. “There Ain’t No Cure” slinks and smokes even without vocal assistance from Ian Hunter; the choogling “Love Make You Do Stupid Things” bristles with the exhilaration of a bar band doing CCR covers behind chicken wire; and “Bring It With You When You Come” swings like Dusty fronting Rockpile. And when Ohlman slows it down (the title track, “Like Honey,” “The Cradle Did Rock”), she nails a soulful swagger that would make Bruce Springsteen investigate clearance rights.
Christine Ohlman and Rebel Montez have been away for good reason but for far too long. Welcome backs don‘t come any more welcome than The Deep End.
As frequent collaborators and sonic experimentalists, David Byrne and Fatboy Slim each have long and illustrious histories, so it makes perfect sense they would eventually join forces on a project. And what a strange and lovely thing they’ve created together. Here Lies Love is a concept album, the wildly weird tale of Imelda Marcos, wife of dictator Ferdinand Marcos and the butt of many a shoe fetish joke when the couple were ousted in 1986. Musically, Byrne and Slim fashion a soundtrack from the grab-bag of their individual strengths, as Indie Pop, Disco, Breakbeat and Tropicalia are woven into a fantastic texture that bubbles and bounces across the album’s nearly two dozen tracks.
It’s the presence of 21 guest vocalists (Byrne sings on just two tracks, one a duet with My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden) that makes Here Lies Love even more oddly appealing and ultimately provides the variety that makes the concept effective. The album begins with the title cut, a song that finds Marcos reflecting on her life and writing her own epitaph (“Here Lies Love”). Sung by Florence Welch of Florence and the Machine, the song soars like an undiscovered ’60s AM Pop radio hit. Elsewhere, Tori Amos smokes on the Pop Samba of “You’ll Be Taken Care Of,” Cyndi Lauper bops with aching purpose through “Eleven Days,” and Martha Wainwright glides above the 10CC-meets-Van Dyke Parks Pop of “The Rose of Tacloban.”
The album shifts into even higher gear on the second disc. Sharon Jones swaggers authoritatively on “Dancing Together,” Alice Russell is boisterously cool on “Men Will Do Anything,” B52s chanteuse Kate Pierson skips in and around the Disco thump of “The Whole Man” and Indie darling Santigold pleads with political savvy on “Please Don’t.”
While the David Byrne/Fatboy Slim collaboration may have been considered a slam-dunk in theory, the pair certainly complicated the process with the Marcos concept, the album’s length and the 21 vocalist salute. And yet, Here Lies Love is an unexpected Pop delight in both story and execution.
Theoretically, the purpose of a side project is to afford the vacationer an opportunity to explore a fresh sonic perspective well removed from his or her regular gig. All too often, the projector exudes a vibe that is simply a variation on existing themes, which is fine if you’re a fan of that existing theme, but not particularly adventurous for musician or listener.
No such paradigm exists for Fratellis frontman Jon Lawler, who’s taking a busman’s holiday from his high-energy position with the Glaswegian Indie Garage Rock band to do something surprisingly different. Lawler and low-profiled singer/songwriter Lou Hickey have teamed up to tribute their long simmering love of ’60s guy/girl groups, Phil Spectorish production (sans arsenal) and Rat Pack romanticism in a wild collaboration they’ve dubbed Codeine Velvet Club.
On their eponymous debut, Lawler and Hickey establish a sound that suggests Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra as if they’d been obsessed with Roy Wood, John Barry, Petula Clark, Surf music and spaghetti western soundtracks. Almost all of that shows up in “Hollywood,” CVC’s expansive opening track and mission statement, a song that somehow references Lawler and Hickey’s half-century old influences while simultaneously sounding contemporarily fresh.
And it gets cooler and weirder — “Little Sister” imagines the Squirrel Nut Zippers’ tribute to T. Rex; “Begging Bowl Blues” is Marianne Faithfull (circa 1967) guesting on a Sgt. Pepper waltz outtake; “Time” is Debbie Harry and Blondie as a mariachi Punk band; and “Vanity Kills” swaggers and swings like a Broadway musical based on a Madness song with Amy Winehouse’s clean-and-sober understudy in the lead.
If you love the blistering energy of The Fratellis and you’re wondering what they might sound like sweetened and squeezed through a pastry cone to decorate a cake for John Barry that Holly Golightly jumps out of, then Codeine Velvet Club might be your groovy dessert course.
If you put a Sharon Jones & and the Dap Kings CD in a 20-disc shuffle player with 19 Funk/Soul CDs from the ’60s and ’70s, only an avowed expert on that period would be able to pick the Dap Kings as the contemporary ringer in the bunch. Jones is a powerful and emotional vocalist whose style, energy, passion and pure talent stands shoulder to shoulder with the best of the classic era of Soul, from Aretha Franklin to Tina Turner to Bettye LaVette. And with the little dynamo Jones at the mic, the Dap Kings match her stride for swaggering stride, blasting out an authentic Soul groove that sweats like sex, thrills like danger and inspires like church.
The band’s output to date has been almost universally acclaimed, but their latest, I Learned the Hard Way, might just be the jewel in the Dap Kings’ crown.
So far, Jones and the Dap Kings have been content to play a blistering style of Funk and Soul that is guaranteed to generate frenzied moneymaker shaking that could be mistaken for tent revival fervor or an uncontrollable medical condition. On I Learned the Hard Way, Jones and the Kings retain their signature passion while dialing up the Soul and slowing the pace down to a bubbling simmer, trading dance party moves for brilliant Soul balladry.
Where previous albums have jumped out of the gate with Jones attacking the mic with shingle-loosening abandon, Hard Way opens with the melancholic and epic Soul slow dance of “The Game Gets Old,” a song that effectively sets the tone for the album to come. “Better Things to Do” bounces along on a smoky Bar-Kays groove while Jones reflects on the empowerment of a break-up (“It takes two to love but only one to leave … I got better things to do than remember you”), “Give It Back” sounds like it could have been an outtake from a Supremes/Temptations session and the title track is a string-and-horn-laden workout that would have been entrenched in the Top 5 for weeks on the Pop charts in 1971. And when Jones and the Dap Kings turn up the heat on “She Ain’t a Child No More,” it’s a subtle rise in temperature that blends Chicago Soul and ’60s Brit Pop.
Every song on I Learned the Hard Way is a stellar highlight and the album as a whole is an astonishing stylistic leap for Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, an almost unfathomable accomplishment considering their jaw-dropping work to date.
Martin Sexton might just be an American musical treasure. When the Syracuse native shuffled up to Boston in 1990, he made a huge impact on the city’s notoriously tough coffeehouse Folk circuit, won numerous Boston Music Awards accolades and steadily went from independent artist to indie label roster denizen to major label tout and back to independent artist in eight years.
Along that path, Sexton never altered his musical direction to suit a label’s desire, maintaining his style of refracting the sounds of the American songbook — Gospel, Blues, Country, Soul, Jazz and Rock — through the prism of his unique Folk singer/songwriter perspective. The results have always been spectacular, from his 1996 indie debut, Black Sheep, to his acclaimed 1998 major label bow, The American, to his conceptual and eclectic recreation of ’70s FM radio on 2000’s Wonder Bar.
Since resurrecting his original Kitchen Table label for his 2005 tour document, Live Wide Open, Sexton has continued to plow his own musical furrow, like an American Van Morrison produced by Van Dyke Parks. His last album, 2007’s Seeds, had the sweeping range of Wonder Bar without the conceptual connective tissue and further established Sexton’s singular Folk vision.
That trend continues unabated on Sexton’s latest album, Sugarcoating. The album opens with “Found,” an expansive mission statement that maps out Sexton’s modern difficulties while loping along on a gently powerful melody and a vibe that references ’70s Folk Pop with a contemporary flair; this is a song that would make a slavish Sexton fan out of John Mayer and Richard Shindell.
And so it goes — the jazzy Soul/Pop of “Boom Sh-Boom” would make Jason Mraz take notice, the melancholy Folk/Gospel hymn of “Always Got Away” just might be the rare song that John Hiatt would cover himself and the R&B bop of “Livin the Life” displays Sexton’s funkier side. Then there‘s the Beatles/Harry Nilsson bounce of “Stick Around,” the Bakersfield twang of “Long Haul” and the Mayer Jazzgrass of “Friends Again.” The title track takes a page from the Pete Seeger handbook, setting a bracing examination of the events and aftermath of 9/11 to a jaunty, almost exuberant soundtrack.
With the gorgeous and diverse Sugarcoating, Martin Sexton has once again shown his peers and his fans the limitless possibilities of Folk music and his incomparable ability to explore all of them in a single set of songs.