Another crazy week in Bakerville and it’s only going to get more hectic as the weeks proceed. My daughter’s last day of school is next Thursday (she’d have been off this week if Hurricane Ike hadn’t devoured her snow days last September) and once she’s home for the summer, my daily schedule gets slightly more complicated. And the family vacation is stretching into two weeks this year (in part to make up for last year’s total lack of vacation time), which means I’ll have to get three week’s worth of work done in a single week to avoid writing on vacation.
A few years back, I ran out of time and took discs to the Michigan cottage we rent annually, wrote the reviews longhand on notebook paper by the lake then took them to the nearest town’s one room library and used their lone computer to type up my reviews and e-mail them to my respective editors. It must have been very exciting; every time the librarian answered the phone, she whispered, “There’s a writer here.” In her defense, libraries do typically attract readers. Anyway, I’m hoping to avoid a repeat of that episode, although my son gave his old laptop to me for Christmas so I could take that with me and not give the Alanson librarian any additional palpitations.
To the point, a busy schedule has made me both late and light this week, and has once again forced me to forego my vinyl burning activities. Great stuff here, though … what is lacking in numbers is more than made up for in quality. Read on, rock on.
Ryan Bingham’s colorful path on the way to his new album, Roadhouse Sun, has included leaving a broken New Mexico home at 14 for the competitive bull-riding circuit, learning to play guitar from a neighbor in a mariachi band at 17, writing universally personal songs, scoring a weekly gig at a Texas roadhouse and self-releasing a succession of no-fi/no-money recordings (Wishbone Saloon, Dead Horses, Lost Bound Rails, all out of print). By the time Lost Highway tapped him for his official and almost universally acclaimed debut, 2007’s Mescalito, Bingham already enjoyed a large and loyal fan base.
Already touted by the likes of Joe Ely and Texas music legend Terry Allen, Bingham’s fanbase will likely grow exponentially with the release of Roadhouse Sun. The album finds Bingham at his gravelly best, peeling off rootsy rockers that would make Steve Earle take notes (“Day Is Done,” “Hey Hey Hurray”) and twangy ballads that would stop Willie Nelson in his tracks (“Rollin Highway Blues,” “Snake Eyes”). On Roadhouse Sun, Bingham also redirects his typical inward focus to shine a songwriting light on the political landscape with the razor sharp observations of “Dylan’s Hard Rain” (“Is everybody so afraid/Mr. Dylan’s hard rain is fair warning”), “Endless Ways” (“I’m getting so tired of what you say/You’re lettin’ this whole world go down the drain”) and the electric Dylanesque “Hey Hey Hurray” (“Oh no, don’t make a stand/You might piss off the government man/Put a pistol in your hand/Put you on a boat to go play in the sand”). Like the best top-shelf bourbon, Ryan Bingham delivers a powerful kick with a smoky smooth finish.
I grew up in Michigan in the ’60s, a time when the name Iggy Pop conjured up images of peanut butter and glitter, glass shards and real blood, danger and risk, pretty faces gone to hell and the desperate desire to be someone’s dog. Since that time, for better or worse, Iggy has thrown himself head first into every sonic exploration that has attracted his attention, from the Dance Pop of Blah Blah Blah to the Metal throb of Instinct to the stripped-back Punk brilliance of Skull Ring. Critics have rarely embraced Iggy’s wide stylistic mood swings; a good many were put off by The Weirdness, his Stooges reunion with the Asheton brothers, faulting it for not being Raw Power II while failing to see that it was merely the first volley in what could have been a string of late-in-life triumphs for the once and future Stooges. Ron Asheton’s unfortunate passing has all but derailed that hope (although word has it that Iggy is trying to bring Raw Power guitarist James Williamson out of retirement … please let it happen).
Wrong-headed critics may well see Iggy’s jazzy new album, Preliminaires, as his moody reaction to Asheton’s death, but in fact the album was recorded and completed before that sad event. Inspired by the 2005 French novel The Possibility of an Island and spurred to action when filmmaker Marjane Satrapi (of Persepolis fame) contacted Iggy about doing the soundtrack for her film on Island author Michel Houellebecq, Preliminaires is quiet, ruminative and quite amazing. Iggy croons the classic “Autumn Leaves” in French, his low register reminiscent of Leonard Cohen’s dusky growl, his pose more Serge Gainsbourg than Godfather of Punk, while “King of the Dogs” finds Iggy channeling Louis Armstrong and Tom Waits. “Nice to Be Dead” leans more toward classic Iggy Rock and “He’s Dead/She’s Alive” rattles and hums with Delta back porch menace.
Lyrically, every song on Preliminaires fits completely in Iggy’s established canon and could easily be rearranged to fit seamlessly within whatever howling-mad Rock structure he imagines next, but the fact is that Iggy has crafted a splendid work that touches on his current musical interests while remaining completely true to the fluid artistic vision he began constructing for himself with the debut Stooges album four decades ago. In the Hall of Fame? Iggy Pop should have his own wing.
Nearly two decades ago, Government Cheese guitarist Tommy Womack and Will and the Bushmen guitarist Will Kimbrough joined forces to create the legendary and much beloved Bis-quits, who released one exquisite Roots/Soul/Pop album on John Prine’s Oh Boy label before calling it a day. Womack and Kimbrough went on to acclaimed solo careers; Womack amassed a drawerful of great press clippings for his albums, while Kimbrough released a quartet of brilliant discs and gained a measure of success by playing with Jimmy Buffett and getting one of his songs covered by the Parrothead King himself.
Four years ago, Womack and Kimbrough decided it was high time they took to the stage together again and formed a new outfit (with noted sessioners Dave Jacques on bass, John Deaderick on keyboards and Paul Griffith on drums) that they christened Daddy, to the breathless anticipation of their slavish fan base in and around Nashville. The quintet’s first album was Daddy at the Women’s Club, a visceral document of the band in front of a typically fevered audience.
The band’s first studio effort, For a Second Time, channels Daddy’s raw live intensity into a more thoughtful and considered but certainly no less engaging album, showing the almost impossible range that results when Womack’s crunchy Southern Rock/Soul peanut butter crashes headlong into Kimbrough’s Pop chocolate. The album’s opener, “Nobody From Nowhere,” imagines the Allman Brothers if they’d grown up in Detroit in the Motown ’60s, “I Went to Heaven in a Dream Last Night” is Phish stoned on Gospel, “Early to Bed, Early to Rise” is the band’s Todd Snider-fronts-Crazy Horse advice to today’s graduating youth and “He Ain’t Right” is Womack’s Stax Soul Roots autobiography (sung naturally by Kimbrough). There isn’t a punted track in sight on For a Second Time, and every successive spin reveals yet another reason to love your Daddy.
For his new album, Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, Elvis Costello reteamed with producer T Bone Burnett, who manned the boards for Costello’s 1986 masterwork, King of America, as well as 1989’s equally impressive Spike. On those albums, co-producer Burnett followed Costello’s lead and together they crafted works that adhered to Costello’s stylistic direction of the ’80s. For Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, Costello wanted to follow the more traditional Americana leanings of Burnett’s recent work, giving Burnett sole control in the producer’s chair.
Utilizing a core band of double bassist Dennis Crouch, fiddler Stuart Duncan, mandolinist Mike Compton and dobroist Jerry Douglas (with harmony vocals from Jim Lauderdale and Emmylou Harris), Burnett has steered Costello down a more typical Bluegrass path, which is clearly what Costello had in mind for this very traditionally skewed set of largely original songs. Costello’s first dalliance with Country, 1981’s Almost Blue, was a set of covers that blended Costello’s distinctive colorations with his love of the Countrypolitan style of the early ’60s and that confused a good many of his New Wave fans, particularly here in the States. Nearly 30 years later, Costello’s artistic shifts are not only accepted but eagerly anticipated.
Secret, Profane & Sugarcane turns the tables on Almost Blue; rather than adapting existing songs to his style, Costello brings his unique songwriting style to a gifted group of players who translate his reflective ballads into Bluegrass-tinged odes of loss and lechery and slight redemption. There are a handful of songs from Costello’s unfinished opera about Hans Christian Andersen, which fit the album’s tone perfectly. There are also a couple of co-writes with Burnett, including the Ragtime swing of “Sulphur to Sugarcane,” the gorgeous Loretta Lynn co-write “I Felt the Chill Before the Winter Came,” and a stripped down Delta swamp reading of All This Useless Beauty’s “Complicated Shadows,” all of it bristling with Costello’s creative tension and guided by Burnett’s steady sense of contemporary traditionalism. There’s no mistaking Costello’s profile in here. If the Attractions were on hand, “My All Time Doll” would snarl and slash with the best of his electric catalog. As it is, Elvis Costello has proven once again that his musical mastery extends to whatever he attempts, largely because he understands the secrets of weaving his own identity into the various styles he absorbs and reinterprets.
Mark Everett could easily have become an iconic Pop figure, based on his amazing recordings under the E banner in the early ’90s. But Everett’s artistic vision changed with his transition to his band persona as Eels in the mid-’90s, and his emotional landscape changed with a series of personal tragedies (the deaths of friends, his sister’s suicide, his mother’s cancer diagnosis and eventual passing). In his subsequent Eels work, Everett seemed determined to incorporate as much of his musical surroundings as possible — the darkly poetic Pop of Electro-Shock Blues, the lighter Daisies of the Galaxy, the Rock density of Souljacker, the lo-fi twist of Shootenanny, the all-star sprawl of Blinking Lights and Other Revelations and the brilliant odds-and-sods eclecticism of Meet the Eels and Useless Trinkets.
For his first studio album in five years, Hombre Lobo (Spanish for “man wolf”), Everett touches on many of his previous incarnations, particularly on the album’s debut single, “Fresh Blood,” a lo-fi ’60s synthy horror movie schlockorama featuring Everett’s heavily distorted vocal treatment. On “What’s a Fella Gotta Do” and “Tremendous Dynamite,” the Eels head for Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Yardbirds territory, respectively, tearing through a simple Blues-fused workout and that same needle-pegging, mondo-distorto microphonics. But then Everett dials back the static in favor of a little early Beatles sweetness on “My Timing Is Off,” and the breathtakingly gorgeous baroque Pop ache of “All the Beautiful Things.”
Hombre Lobo exhibits an amazingly broad range of styles across the album’s 12 tracks, a feat made more impressive coupled with the fact that its disparate songs are all essentially odes to unrequited love in all its forms, both quaint and monstrous. Unsurprisingly, it’s another triumph for Everett and his Eels.