Over the Rhine, David Lowery and North Mississippi Allstars

I think this month’s Grammy ceremony is worthy of some small examination. Perhaps the biggest surprise, other than The Arcade Fire’s dark horse Album of the Year win for The Suburbs, was the relative lack of awards. After the first 75 minutes of the broa

Mar 11, 2011 at 2:06 pm

I think this month’s Grammy ceremony is worthy of some small examination. Perhaps the biggest surprise, other than The Arcade Fire’s dark horse Album of the Year win for The Suburbs, was the relative lack of awards. After the first 75 minutes of the broadcast, only Train had taken the stage to claim a statue for Pop Performance by a Duo or Group, with frontman Pat Monahan thanking Justin Bieber for not being a duo or group. Apparently, the lower tier awards are now given out off the air (Producer of the Year is a lower tier award?), with the broadcast concentrating on performances and the Top 10 or so awards of the evening.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing; there have been a lot of tedious thank-you moments in the Grammy shows over the years. At the same time, whatever any of us may think about the apparent shallowness of the nominating process, it’s still a pretty big deal for an artist to win a Grammy, and it had to feel like a bit of a slight to grab some mantle bling and not get a little face time on TV for it.

Jeff Beck won a couple and Neil Young scored for “Angry Words” from his nominated album Le Noise, his first Grammy for music (though his only appearance on the telecast was when he lost losing in the Rock Album category to Muse). Them Crooked Vultures, the Black Keys, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Patty Griffin, Buddy Guy and Mavis Staples, among dozens of others, took home Grammys that went virtually unpublicized. It’s ironic that at the point where the nominating process actually results in relevant and deserving artists being recognized for their work, their awards are being delivered like diplomas at a high school graduation in deference to a glitzy performance show. But what a show it was.

• Eminem’s performance with Dr. Dre and Rihanna was, in a word, spectacular, solid proof of the Detroit native’s Rap skills and growing reputation as an urban poet. He is a true artist and his fiery appearance drove home the art of Recovery, showing that he may well have deserved The Arcade Fire’s trophy.

• Cee Lo Green’s wacked performance of “Fuck You,” lovingly sanitized (“Forget You”) for TV and radio play, was a riot of live cartoon proportions. Decked out like the San Diego Chicken after a dash through Elton John’s old costume warehouse, Green fronted a Muppet band (the bit was, in fact, a tribute to Elton’s appearance on The Muppet Show in 1978) while Gwyneth Paltrow, suddenly singing everywhere with everyone, assisted by vamping her way through the year’s absolute best love-to-hate-you Pop anthem in a brilliantly conceived duet.

• Everyone was clearly agog at Mick Jagger’s debut appearance on the Grammy stage, but the day after his riveting performance, every write-up seemed smitten with his boundless Rock energy but no one seemed the least bit interested in what might have been Jagger’s sole motivation for doing the show — to celebrate the life and work of the late Solomon Burke, who passed away last fall and who was an early influence on the budding Stones. Jagger’s version of “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love,” featuring the towering guitar work of Raphael Saadiq, was a gloriously upbeat tribute to one of music’s original showmen from one of his most gifted students.

• In a triumph of arrangement, Bruno Mars channeled the spirit of Jackie Wilson for his R&B spin on “Beautiful Girls” and “Grenade.” Cooler yet was Mars playing drums for Janelle Monae when she followed with a slam dunk turn on her “Cold War,” which featured Monae’s elegant stage dive into the crowd.

• Seeing Mumford and Sons on the Grammy broadcast was like a gift from the gods and following them up with the Avett Brothers seemed like back-to-back miracles. But to have both bands back up Bob Dylan while he croaked out “Maggie’s Farm” for the new millennium was utterly mind-blowing in a way that hasn’t been experienced since Dylan carried his own guitar case.

• Esperanza Spalding? In your face, Bieber!

All things considered, an uncharacteristic and relatively enjoyable Grammy program. I’m hopeful that next year’s show will find a little better balance between award ceremony and televised concert (you know you wanted to see Danger Mouse accept Producer of the Year). I could go on, and you know I could, but the CDs are stacking up like cordwood and they won’t review themselves, so let’s hit this pile running.

In a lot of ways, Cincinnati's Over the Rhine belonged to the world almost as soon as they birthed its spectacular debut album, 1991’s Patience. There wasn't really an evolutionary period involving chops-honing and building an audience with local bar gigs every weekend before becoming a songwriting and performing powerhouse that could stand toe-to-toe with its peer group on the national level. Karin Bergquist and Linford Detweiler sprang fully formed from Zeus’ forehead as a mature and supremely talented duo with the undeniable ability to mingle heartache and joy with words and music and find an indelible way to invest each emotion with a taste of the other.

For that reason, OTR came out of the chute with the poise and moxy to open for Bob Dylan without a moment’s hesitation or twinge of intimidation (well, maybe just a smidge). The band's inherent talents were strong enough to charm his crowd into following the band. Bergquist and Detweiler’s most impressive achievement over the past 20 years has been an unflinching dedication to their craft, remaining enamored with the development of their songwriting and musical execution while retaining their signature sound and holding on to their core audience while attracting new fans along the way. (Oh, and they've managed to stay married, too.) Those are no mean feats considering the trends and pan flashes that have streaked through Pop music over the past two decades.

On their latest album, The Long Surrender (released on the band's Great Speckled Dog label and distributed by Redeye Distribution), OTR push its gorgeous envelope once again, this time working with producer Joe Henry, who proves to be an adept and sensitive caretaker and collaborator. By that same token, Bergquist and Detweiler are excellent foils for Henry’s texturalism, as evidenced by the smoky Jazz ache of “There’s a Bluebird in My Heart” and the creaky Americana floorboard vibe of “The Laugh of Recognition.” And while OTR doesn’t stray far afield from the soulful piano-based Pop the group has long championed, the pair and their talented cast (along with Henry’s assistance) breathe new life into musical ideas they perfected long ago.

On the last OTR album, 2007’s The Trumpet Child, Detweiler channeled Tom Waits on “Don’t Wait for Tom.” On Surrender, Henry and the duo paint a similar picture in subtler shades with “All My Favorite People” and “Infamous Love Song,” while “Only God Can Save Us Now” finds them panning for gold in John Prine‘s creek and coming up with plenty of nuggets.

Just as significantly, OTR proves its gift for translation with a powerful Baroque/Chamber Pop reading of longtime cohort and fellow Cincinnatian Kim Taylor’s “Days Like This,” an already beautiful song polished to a dusky luster by Bergquist’s emotive vocals, Detweiler’s intuitive piano and Henry’s magnificent facility for sonic sculpting. Those elements are equally in play on the delicately insistent “Rave On” and the dark carnival carousel soundtrack of “Soon,” but the album’s highlight may well be “Undamned,” featuring Lucinda Williams trading vocal phrases with Bergquist.

If The Long Surrender holds any larger message, it just might be that Bergquist and Detweiler are fully armed with the kind of musical curiosity and genuine awe that is essential to Over the Rhine’s continued growth as they embark on their third decade of brilliantly familiar reinvention.

Like most bands, the hardcore early fanbase that followed the exploits of Austin-based Post Punk provocateurs ...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead (henceforth truncated to Trail of Dead in the interest of word count sanity) will forcefully tell you that the band’s first two albums —1998’s eponymous debut for Trance Syndicate and 1999’s sophomore album for Merge — were their best and everything since has been a blatant attempt to curry commercial favor from radio, television and the masses in general.

While there is a grain of truth to that call — those albums are visceral and explosive, merely hinting at the incendiary chaos the band perpetrated on stage — Trail of Dead’s subsequent albums are most certainly not the work of a group selling out to appeal to the lowest common denominator. The deliberately constructed Source Codes & Tags from 2002 was hailed as an Indie Rock masterpiece and 2005’s intricate and perfectly bombastic Worlds Apart was not far off its predecessor’s beam. Ironically, the more immediate, less calculated, live-in-the-studio vibe of Trail of Dead’s first post-Interscope album, 2009’s The Century of Self, was ostensibly a return to form and yet vastly underrated.

Trail of Dead’s new album, Tao of the Dead, finds the band at the end of a tumultuous period; only founders Conrad Keely and Jason Reece remain, joined by bassist Autry Fulbright and drummer Jamie Miller, resulting in their first album in years to feature a stripped back quartet. Tao of the Dead is essentially an extension of Century of Self’s spare framework and guitar emphasis with a slight return to the epic intentions of the Interscope projects. The album’s two parts, “Tao of the Dead” and “Strange News from Another Planet,” are done in separate tunings, sets of individual songs strung together from track to track like a classic Rock opera giving it the air of a Post Punk version of Dark Side of the Moon (Punk Floyd?) or a Yes box of suites.

Alternately dense and constructed and then spartan and brashly immediate, Tao of the Dead is the logical successor to Source Codes & Tags and clearly one of Trail of Dead’s best works in the new millennium.

When Camper Van Beethoven came to prominence in the mid-’80s, the Santa Cruz-based unit was a prime example of how strangely diversified Punk had become over the previous decade. CVB’s sound was a crazy sonic quilt patched together out of Country, Psychedelia, Klezmer, Ska, Folk and Middle Eastern rhythms (along with anything else that presented itself along the way) held together with an attitude that was part Rock reverence and part Punk disdain and a sublime sense of humor. CVB was mainstreamed slightly with their signing to Virgin, but they managed to maintain elements of their original sound.

After the band broke up in 1990, vocalist/guitarist David Lowery and Unforgiven guitarist Johnny Hickman assembled Cracker, an extension/expansion of CVB’s Pop/Rock identity that moved away from its ethnic aspects while retaining a quirky sense of the absurd. Cracker’s first two albums were enormously successful and, although shifting trends marginalized their appeal, that initial success has allowed Lowery the latitude to revisit and expand upon CVB’s canon as well as explore Country, Folk and other stylistic diversions with Cracker before returning to some semblance of their original direction with 2009’s Sunrise in the Land of Milk and Honey.

An interesting dilemma presents itself for Lowery on The Palace Guards, his first true solo album in his nearly three decade-long career, namely, how to differentiate himself from himself. Although The Palace Guards features input from Cracker stalwarts Hickman and Sal Maida, the album is a Lowery solo outing by virtue of the fact that these are songs that Lowery wrote over the years that didn’t fit comfortably within the niches of the ever-evolving Cracker or the reconstituted CVB.

Lowery’s oddball sense of humor is still evident sporadically on The Palace Guards, particularly on the opening Bob Dylan/Neil Young acoustic hootenanny of “Raise ’em Up on Honey,” which starts out with a back-to-the-earth down home vibe then veers into survivalist territory. The album’s title track is similarly quirky, with its quick/slow tempo/style changes and seriocomic lyrical message, wherein Lowery warns his lover about the consequences of leaving then shrugs it off by pointing out his weird sense of humor.

When Lowery gets serious, he does it with a vengeance; “Deep Oblivion” has the feel of John Lennon’s “Mind Games” translated as a rootsy Folk epic, a mournful dirge with a twisted smile. Even more powerful is “Big Life,” a Forever-era outtake which may well serve as Lowery’s send-off to departed friend/collaborator Mark Linkous, whose keyboard part on the song might be his last recording before he took his own life last year.

There is a pervasive sense of loss and heartbreak on The Palace Guards, an odd theme given the fact that Lowery married his bands’ longtime manager last fall. But the fact that these songs cover a long span of time may speak to the album’s content more than Lowery’s newlywed status. In the end, The Palace Guards serves two purposes, as it cements Lowery’s long-established CVB/Cracker creative persona while also thematically/lyrically departing from it, softening the ethnic sway of the former and the rootsy swagger of the latter.

For a musical juggler like David Lowery, The Palace Guards merely represents an interesting third and perhaps slightly heavier ball to keep in the air.

Genetics certainly indicated that North Mississippi Allstars would be a stacked deck of musical excellence when they started over a decade ago, with the presence of Luther and Cody Dickinson, the sons of legendary Memphis producer/artist Jim Dickinson. And the trio, rounded out by bassist Chris Chew, lived up to expectations with their 2001 debut, Shake Hands with Shorty, which won a variety of Blues awards and scored a Grammy nomination. Over the subsequent 10 years, the Dickinsons have been involved in a diverse but clearly related range of outside projects (The Black Crowes, John Hiatt and the Word and Hill Country Revue among them), while maintaining a stomping roadhouse Blues direction and vision for the Allstars.

For NMA’s latest studio album, Keys to the Kingdom, the Dickinsons take a slightly more nuanced approach as they use the album as a platform to honor their late father, who died from complications of heart surgery nearly two years ago. The elder Dickinson’s spirit is so pervasive on Kingdom that he’s credited as producer, even though they began the album several months after his death. Evidence of his hand comes on the trio’s electric Delta take on Dylan’s “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again,” which was actually suggested by the elder Dickinson before his passing.

Combining a Stonesy swagger with Stax Soul passion and Delta Blues reverence, NMA reels off gem after gem on Kingdom — the slinky Ry Cooder-tinged “Let it Roll,” the Ry Cooder-guested shimmer of “Ain’t No Grave,” the electric Piedmont swing of “Jumpercable Blues,” the Stones/Zeppelin thunder of “Ain’t None O’ Mine,” the Levon Helm lope of “Ol’ Cannonball.”

NMA explores an amazing spectrum of the Blues on Keys to the Kingdom, very similar to the unbelievable range that Jim Dickinson routinely exhibited in his work as a session player and producer. After a handful of Grammy nominations, Keys to the Kingdom should bring North Mississippi Allstars to the podium.

On a related genetic note, sometimes talent comes down through the DNA and yet the child seems to bear no characteristic marks from the parent. A brilliant case in point is Teddy Thompson, whose lineage from Richard and Linda Thompson would seem to indicate that he would assume the mantle of second coming of British Folk. Instead, young Teddy has explored a distinct Pop direction (with diversionary tactics like resurrecting his mother’s career with her 2002 triumph Fashionably Late and his Country covers album, Upfront & Down Low in 2007).

Three years ago, Thompson returned to his Jesse Winchester-meets-Van Dyke Parks Pop direction with A Piece of What You Need, which accomplished the rare wirewalk of evolving without substantially changing and established Thompson as an artist clearly and uncompromisingly aware of the marketplace.

Thompson’s fifth full album, Bella, follows that general path, reinforcing the lessons of the last album and teaching a few new ones in the process. Thompson’s greatest gift is in filtering all of his environmental and genetic influences into a singularity that is flecked with the colors and textures of Pop, Folk, Country and Rock without relying on any of them as a primary style. From the propulsive and cheeky “Looking for a Girl” and the slow, sweet, string-driven “Delilah” to the Roy Orbison/Jimmy Webb expanse of “Take Me Back Again” and the quiet but unromanticized Folk reflection of “Home,” Thompson shows his absolute mastery at making unique sounds out of well worn musical templates.

Lyrically, Thompson has always risen above his Pop surroundings and that course remains constant on Bella. He gives a peek into his self-critical perspective on the breezily off-kilter “Over and Over,” where he admits being comfortable with repeating himself and reveals his secret to diffusing criticism (“Some time ago I came up with a plan/Shit on myself so that no one else can/I have perfected this dance/You’d better keep your distance”). It’s an observation, reinforced by the accompanying soundtrack, that shows Teddy Thompson knows how to make Pop music that doesn’t have to generate millions in sales to be considered successful.

If you’d never heard Jessica Lea Mayfield before you saw her picture, you might be tempted to believe that she was a waifish blonde Folk warbler with a reflective streak and a penchant for peaceful meadows and spring flowers. And once again you’d be slapped with that old bromide about books and covers.

While Mayfield is clearly not a howler or a growler in the typically demonstrative Blues sense, and although she most certainly offers a certain amount of reflection in her work, there is a streak of darkness and an air of menace in her songs that runs counter to her youth and demure demeanor. Even as she sings her lyrics with a certain detached calm, whether tinted with a muted pastel joy or defined by a heavy black outline of melancholy, Mayfield projects the weary aura of a woman and artist who has been through twice as much as the rest of humanity in half the time. That aura is no put-on for Mayfield; she toured with her family’s Bluegrass band as a child and wrote and recorded her debut EP, White Lies, when she was just 15.

On her latest album, Tell Me, Mayfield displays all of her potent musical gifts, from the dusty melodicism she weaves into her brilliantly simple songs to the almost casual emotional weight of her lyrical content, usually focused on the subject of heartbreak. With textured and nuanced production by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, Mayfield delicately laces together elements of Folk authenticity, Appalachian Bluegrass murder balladry, Blues anguish and Indie Rock passion into a sonic whole that bristles with the hair-raising potential of a My Morning Jacket/Cowboy Junkies jam session produced by Angelo Badalamenti.

On Tell Me’s slow-cooked opener, “I’ll Be the One You Want Someday,” Mayfield laconically sings, “My only friend is feeding off me/The weakness is starting to consume my body,” as the music spins into a crystalline Crazy Horse waltz. Mayfield’s voice is similarly low key and yet tremblingly expressive on the Indiegrass jaunt “Our Hearts Are Wrong,” where she masks her emotions thusly — “I don’t even care, you knew that’s what I’d say/The only time I miss you is every single day.” At the same time, there are glimmers of light on Tell Me, particularly on the noisily melodic Wilco-meets-Brian Eno buzz of “Blue Skies Again” and blippy Electropop bounce of “Grown Man.”

Tell Me is easily Jessica Lea Mayfield’s most developed and artistically fleshed out work to date, an astonishing achievement for a 21-year-old and an incredible hint at the directions and heights she has yet to explore.

Gurf Morlix has typically made a bigger impression with other people’s records than with his own, being perhaps best known for his work behind the board and in the studio with Lucinda Williams on her first few albums, and noticed by ardent fans in the credits of artists like Buddy and Julie Miller, Slaid Cleves, Mary Gauthier and many others. Even with Morlix’s obvious contributions to Williams’ ascent, there was little corresponding rise in his profile as a recording artist, as his routinely great albums barely registered critically or commercially. In all honesty, that’s probably fine with Morlix, whose reputation as a producer and sideman earns him a living wage and enables him to make records that please him. If anyone else digs them, he’s in the bonus round.

As if to prove that point to an extreme, Morlix’s latest album under his own name consists of his spin on the songs of one of his best friends and one of the quirkiest songwriters to come out of Texas in the ’70s, the late, great Blaze Foley. Appropriately (or perhaps inappropriately) titled Blaze Foley’s 113th Wet Dream, Morlix runs through an all-too brief compendium of Foley’s unfairly obscure songbook, a folio that runs the gamut from freewheeling and boozily raucous (“Baby Can I Crawl Back to You,” “Oh Darlin’”) to pensive and craggily poignant (“If I Could Only Fly,” “Clay Pigeons,” “Picture Cards”) to brilliantly goofy (“No Goodwill Stores in Waikiki,” “Big Cheeseburgers and Good French Fries”), like a Lone Star version of John Prine.

For Morlix’s part, he perfectly magnifies all of Foley’s best qualities through the lens of his own talent and his longtime love and respect for Foley. Morlix’s tribute to his fallen friend (Foley was shot to death in 1989 when he got in the middle of a fight between a friend and the friend’s son) is being released simultaneously with a filmed documentary about the songwriter, Blaze Foley: Duct Tape Messiah (Foley was such a passionate proponent of the tape product, he made a suit of the stuff).

Blaze Foley’s 113th Wet Dream accomplishes two important goals in exposing the work of a matched pair of gifted singer/songwriters in the midst of a time when we might just need them both the most.