Ringo Starr, Freedy Johnston, OK Go, Vampire Weekend and More

There are few singer/songwriters who can make melancholy and alienation as gorgeous and powerful and appealing as Freedy Johnston. His gifts were readily apparent on his 1990 debut, 'The Trouble Tree,' and were almost impossibly strengthened on his 1992

Jan 15, 2010 at 2:06 pm

I know it’s not my beat and it’s a couple of weeks late, but the mugging of the UC Bearcats in the Sugar Bowl has been aggravating whatever internal organ activates one’s sense of righteous indignation and I feel the need to address the issue.

Here are the things that I would like to see happen as a result of the Bearcats’ unseemly loss to Florida on New Year’s Day:

1) The loss should be attached to Brian Kelly’s record, since his absence on the sideline in the wake of his classless pre-Bowl abandonment of the team was every bit as responsible for UC’s trouncing as the team’s lackluster performance.

2) I’m all for taking the high road in accepting Kelly’s departure … and yet I still believe that he should be made to return to Cincinnati and kiss the bare, unwashed ass of every fan who supported him during his admittedly successful tenure here (and his players’ should get two passes through the line), and I think this should happen on Fountain Square and be broadcast on the Jumbotron. Pay per view isn’t a bad idea either.

3) I am hopeful beyond hope that the first high school prospect Kelly tries to recruit asks him this relevant question: “So, in four years, when you get Notre Dame’s program whipped into Vatican-approved shape and you take us to a significant bowl game, what are the odds that you’ll take a powder and leave us to be interim-coached into an embarrassing loss in our outgoing senior finale so that you’ll be free to accept the head coaching job at Florida when a confused Urban Meyer finally steps down for realsies?”

That’s what I’d like to see. Since none of it is particularly likely, I’ll just wish Coach Kelly the best of luck in his new position — maybe some of that swell Charlie Weis mojo will rub off on him — and assure him that all of his opponents in this higher competitive level of college football are eager to welcome him and his all-offense/some-defense game plan.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled musical program.

Hey, look! New albums! OK, so there’s not a huge amount just yet for the new year; in fact, the six reviewed here represent nearly a half of the total this week. Still, it’s more than the two titles that showed up at the end of last month. And besides, four or five reviews a week is about all my schedule can withstand at this point anyway. It’s just nice when the release sheets and my mailbox are both full so there’s a lot to choose from. This week signals the start of that trend. Off we go …

There is a fair case to be made that there are six great Ringo Starr albums contained in the drummer’s 14 solo works. Clearly more prolific early on — perhaps because he had more to say in the immediate wake of The Beatles’ demise — Ringo’s recent albums have been as sporadic as their quality (Time Takes Time and Ringo Rama, quite good; Vertical Man and Liverpool 8, not so much). As a drummer, Ringo’s place was providing deceptively simple beats for three acknowledged musical giants. On film, his role was defined as comic foil and character actor. Ringo’s success in both endeavors wasn’t exactly an endorsement for him to step into the front and center spotlight.

For all of these reasons and probably a few more, it comes as no small surprise that Ringo’s 15th studio album, Y Not, is quite satisfying from start to finish. Utilizing the formula that has marked his recent albums and All-Starr tours, Ringo has assembled another cast of marquee friends for his band, including Joe Walsh, Joss Stone, Ben Harper, Richard Marx, Van Dyke Parks and some old geez named McCartney.

Y Not kicks off with the blazing fun of “Fill in the Blanks,” a return to the Rock whimsy of Ringo and Goodnight Vienna, followed by the shimmery “Peace Dream,” where Ringo name checks John Lennon while Sir Paul provides slinky bass to the lightly earnest anthem. The title track is a hybridized slice of Funkpoparoll, heavy on the fun, “Walk with You” is a gorgeous duet with McCartney (Paul conceived his response-harmony vocal after one listen to the track) and the beautifully muscular “Mystery of the Night” might simply be one of the best love songs that Ringo has ever had a hand in.

Y Not is the first album Ringo has produced himself, and maybe that’s the difference here. Whatever it is, the venerable Mr. Starr should bottle it and serve this vintage every couple of years.

There are few singer/songwriters who can make melancholy and alienation as gorgeous and powerful and appealing as Freedy Johnston. His gifts were readily apparent on his 1990 Bar/None debut, The Trouble Tree, and were almost impossibly strengthened on his 1992 sophomore album, the indescribably wonderful Can You Fly. The resultant buzz led to a long term Elektra association (and Johnston’s most enduring song, “Bad Reputation,” from 1994’s This Perfect World), but the label seemed disinclined to support the pithy songwriter and his gently hopeless tales of urban heartbreak, so Johnston finally moved on.

He reteamed with Bar/None for The Way I Were, his 2004 collection of early 4-track demos, moved to Shout! Factory for a live set recorded at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Los Angeles and self-released his 2007 cover set, My Favorite Waste of Time. After nine long years, Johnston has finally returned to the studio (and to Bar/None) with brand new songs, coming away with the patently brilliant Rain on the City.

Much like Can You Fly, Johnston launches Rain on the City with the pensive and atmospheric “Lonely Penny,” a quietly hopeful tale of two lost souls finding each other in uncertain times for both. The opener is merely the set up for the crackling “Don’t Fall in Love with a Lonely Girl,” ostensibly a response to “Penny” and quite possibly the most engagingly powerful track Johnston has written since This Perfect World. The title track and “Livin’ Too Close to the Rio Grande” are perfect examples of Johnston’s strengths — twangy Americana/Folk that shimmers with Power Pop melodicism — while “The Devil Raises His Own” cooks like Jimmy Webb produced by Burt Bacharach. In typical Johnston fashion, every single track on Rain on the City rings as true as an angel’s testimony and induces stomps, sighs, tears and weary smiles with equal conviction.

Laura Veirs writes gorgeous Folkcentric Pop that is as organic and natural and warm and bright as a slow sunrise and every bit as cosmically impressive. Her wonderfully engaging melodies have the capacity to haunt and uplift all at the same time, eliciting equal measures of melancholy and joy and inspiring collaborations and fan worship from the likes of guitarist Bill Frisell, violist Eyvind Kang, My Morning Jacket’s Jim James and The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy, who has already dubbed Veirs’ seventh album, July Flame, the best of the young year.

It’s not difficult to understand Meloy’s heartfelt endorsement. July Flame, like Veirs’ previous works, shimmers like the heat rising from a country road, insinuating itself into the listener’s head, heart and soul with an almost carefree ease. “Sun Is King” is a darkly breezy Americana ode and “Wide-eyed, Legless” is a spritely, noisy baroque Pop jig, coming off like Suzanne Vega fronting the Shins, while “I Can See Your Tracks” sounds like Veirs tributing My Morning Jacket while thinking about Nick Drake.

Unlike 2007’s more arranged and complex Saltbreakers, July Flame finds Veirs in simpler mode, not starkly acoustic but in a similar vein as Van Morrison, with no extraneous notes or sounds cluttering the proceedings. Veirs has been criticized in the past for being too sonically passive but she has never jumped out of the speakers demanding to be heard, preferring to leaven her Folk and Pop brilliance with touches of Brian Eno’s Ambient atmosphere and allow her songs to drift in like the tide rather than crash like an obvious wave.

July Flame is infinitely listenable and quietly memorable, and Laura Veirs deserves to recognized for her thoughtful craft, even if it doesn’t come for another 11 and a half months.

One of the true giants of Texas music, Ray Wylie Hubbard is among those rare artists that have deservedly earned the tag of songwriter’s songwriter. Over the course of a nearly 40-year career, Hubbard has delighted fans, astounded peers and confounded labels with his boozy, brawling blend of Blues, Folk and Country, sparked with enough electricity to transform it into Roots Rock, long before anyone had a thought to christen it that way.

In the late ’60s, Hubbard started his legacy by writing “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother,” which Jerry Jeff Walker turned into a cult hit in 1973. Hubbard released his debut album in 1971 and subsequently recorded for five different labels before a variety of personal demons derailed his career for close to a decade. When he finally returned in the early ’90s, Hubbard turned out a couple of excellent releases, including 1994’s Loco Gringo’s Lament on the soon-to-fold Dejadisc — before moving to Philo/Rounder for a long eight-year run.

With his 2006 album, the self-released Snake Farm, Hubbard teamed up with like-minded Country/Roots producer/artist Gurf Morlix to bring more of his Blues roots to the surface, putting him closer to his avowed desire to be a cross between Guy Clark and John Lee Hooker. With his latest self-released gem, A. Enlightenment B. Endarkment (Hint: There Is No C), he continues down a similar path, mixing up a mess of Country/Roots Rock shot through with plenty of raw electric Blues.

Hubbard’s mission statement for A. Enlightenment could easily be summed up in “Down Home Country Blues,” where he declares, “I’m partial to old Hooker singing ‘Crawling King Snake’/ And I can say that Muddy Waters is as deep as William Blake.” That’s classic Hubbard, and A. Enlightenment is stacked floor to ceiling with it, from the stagger/swagger of “Drunken Poet’s Dream,” a song that Steve Earle would be ecstatic to call his own, to the Gospel fervor of “Whoop and Holler” to the snarling Blues sting and jungle rhythm of “Every Day Is the Day of the Dead,” Ray Wylie Hubbard continues to present solid evidence of his musical divinity.

Forget the Hall of Fame. Is there a church of Texas music? Because I kind of like the sound of St. Ray Wylie.

OK Go definitely worked their way into Pop culture consciousness with their treadmill-tastic and Grammy-winning video for “Here It Goes Again,” the smash hit from their 2005 sophomore album Oh No. After nearly 50 million hits on YouTube, it’s clear that OK Go’s calculated look-at-us strategy — a combination of watchable novelty videos and Glam/Punk/geek fashion choices — had a major impact on the populace, a fact reflected in the sales figures for Oh No and its 2002 self-titled predecessor. The problem has been that more than one critic has wondered if the band expended more creative energy on getting their music heard than on making the music, even though the band has totally discounted any grand marketing scheme behind anything they’ve done.

It’s been four and a half years since the release of Oh No; in that time, OK Go traded Andys (guitarist/keyboardist/vocalist Ross for similarly skilled founding member Duncan), toured relentlessly, wrote the fight song for Chicago’s soccer team, came up with that endlessly viewed video for “Here It Goes Again,” appeared as a wedding band in a cameo in I Love You, Man, contributed “Gigantic” to the Dig For Fire Pixies tribute and wrote and recorded their new album, Of the Blue Colour of the Sky (notice the English spelling of “colour;” due to the album deriving its name from the title of British author Augustus James Pleasanton’s 1876 book The Influence of the Blue Ray of the Sunlight and of the Blue Colour of the Sky).

With Rock bands, the word “mature” is rarely seen in a positive light, as it suggests a seriousness of purpose and perhaps a lessening of the renegade Peter Pan spirit that has defined Rock for half a century. There is no denying that Sky is a more thoughtful and considered album than the first two OK Go discs, so the dreaded “M” word certainly applies here.

The Weezer-meets-Fastball indie Rock pace of Oh No gives way to Sky’s danceable Punk/Funk; “WTF” finds vocalist Damien Kulash rocking a warbly falsetto ala Prince, which is followed by epic ’80s Synth Pop anthemics on “This Too Shall Pass.” There’s a slight return to Indie Rock insistence on the swinging “All Is Not Lost” and the loping “Back from Kathmandu,” but tracks like “White Knuckles” and “Needing/Getting” find OK Go in funkier, spunkier, head-bounce mode, taking cues from the likes of Modest Mouse and Maroon 5, bands that have found commercial success while retaining some semblance of their Indie roots and credibility.

How well OK Go’s retro dance party — typified by the ’70s Vocoder-drenched “Before the Earth Was Round” — goes over with their established audience remains to be seen. The band may well be trading one audience for another with this shift in direction.

Vampire Weekend’s 2008 eponymous debut inspired a lot of comparisons to Paul Simon’s Graceland because of the skittering rhythms and sinewy guitar lines liberally borrowed from Afropop. But the quartet of Columbia University grads were equally enamored of New Wave influences like Talking Heads, Squeeze and Elvis Costello. At the crossroads of those frenetically similar styles, Vampire Weekend created a likable hybrid that attracted a sizable fan base (although a good many potential fans were put off by the band’s freshly-scrubbed, Ivy League collegiate/prep exterior) and earned the band a place on a good many Top 10 lists for the year.

With Contra, the quartet’s sophomore album, Vampire Weekend doesn’t stray too far from the formula that brought them success two years ago while finding some odd new options within their Afro-Wave parameters to explore, a clear indication that the band didn’t place much stock in any negative vibes that their debut generated. Vocalist/guitarist Ezra Koenig finds even more inspiration from the twitchier, more eccentric aspects of his David Byrne influence and the band can’t help but be swept along in his wake. Keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij adds fascinating touches of his own, like the baroque harpsichord and stately Pop piano that weave in and out of the string arrangements of “Taxi Cab,” while Koenig offers up a primer on class distinction that references Robyn Hitchcock almost as much as Byrne and Talking Heads. Elsewhere, “Cousins” sounds like VW came across a Fishbone album since their last go-round (or maybe the latent influence just finally surfaced), and “Run” has the Synth Pop feel of OMD if they’d been steered by The English Beat.

In a lot of ways, the Graceland comparisons don’t hold much water because Vampire Weekend doesn’t merely ape the conventions of Afropop and apply it to their already established and foundational style, they mix the primary colors of their plainly stated influences and come up with a completely unique and vibrant secondary color. And from the frenetic energy and manic good time that Vampire Weekend is having on Contra, it doesn’t seem like it matters whether or not anyone else likes them; they like what they’re doing just fine.