Samantha Crain, A Camp, Paleface and Tim Easton

This week's posting might be a little lighter than weeks previous, and there's no vinyl reporting this week either. I just didn't feel the joy of rooting through the shelves this week. But let's take a quick look at new CDs from Samantha Crain, A Camp, P

This week’s posting may be a little lighter than weeks previous and there’s no vinyl reporting this week either. I just didn’t feel the joy of rooting through the shelves this week. My good friend Mark, whose cancer battle I detailed in my March 6 posting, lost that fight on April 17 — and in the wake of his funeral last week it’s been a struggle to get the words in the right order.

The other complication is that I’ve been using music more as comfort than grist for the review mill and, although there have been a couple of non-negotiable deadlines in that timeframe which necessitated that I buckle down and form an opinion about the music, it was accomplished under the darkest imaginable cloud. I hate to give this posting less than my best effort, so I'll defer a few of the titles I had slated for this week until the next couple of entries. In the words of the immortal Ozark Mountain Daredevils, it’ll shine when it shines.

Long before the release of last year’s excellent The Confiscation EP, Samantha Crain had already established herself as a legitimate talent with a string of raw but impressive demos. The Confiscation merely put Crain’s gifts in a little higher relief, and showed the Oklahoma native to be more than worthy of the hype being slung in her direction. With a sound that hinted at Feist (or even Erika Wennerstrom) playing Victor Frankenstein with the limbs of Wilco, the torso of Woody Guthrie and the brain of Bob Dylan, Crain’s only sin on The Confiscation was brevity.

On her debut full length, Songs in the Night, Crain and her skilled backing band, the Midnight Shivers, at least slightly expand the size and the scope of The Confiscation. “Rising Sun” lopes along on a pleasant Folk/Pop groove, as does “Long Division,” albeit with a hint of Van Dyke Parks’ arrangement style. “Calm Down” betrays a hint of Waitsian balladeering while “Scissor Tales” updates Woody’s Dust Bowl classicism and “Bullfight (Change Your Mind)” combines roots Pop churn with Surf guitar vigor. Like The Confiscation, Crain’s throaty rasp and hitchy delivery provide just the right amount of quirk to Songs in the Night and the Midnight Shivers conjure up a Band-like tapestry of contemporary timelessness.

In the late ’90s, Cardigans vocalist Nina Persson took a break from the rigors of worldwide fame and teamed up with Atomic Swing frontman Niclas Frisk on a small side project they christened A Camp. The duo shelved the concept for three years, eventually getting Sparklehouse’s Mark Linkous to produce the subsequent sessions that comprised A Camp’s self-titled 2001 debut, an album that won four Swedish Grammys and never had an American release.

Two years ago, Frisk, Persson and her husband Nathan Larson (ex-Shudder to Think) were all living in New York and resurrected A Camp with the idea to work faster and more cohesively and the success of their endeavors is all over the group’s sophomore album, Colonia. Stylistically, A Camp covers a broad sonic range, from Ronettes-like Doo Wop to baroque Rock to ethereal Pop, all filtered through a contemporary mindset. Persson’s vocals run a similar gamut, exuding the quiet beauty of Jane Siberry, the devastating power of Chrissie Hynde and the visceral attraction of pre-cigarettes-and-heroin Marianne Faithfull.

There are songs on Colonia that brim with a contemporary Tin Pan Alley kind of feel, like Aimee Mann channeling Harry Nilsson (“The Crowning”), others that sway expansively like Sam Phillips arranged by Burt Bacharach (“Stronger Than Jesus," “Love Has Left the Room”), and when Frisk joins in he brings a compelling Ron Sexsmith quality to the proceedings. Every listen reveals another subtle layer to Colonia’s depth and is further evidence that A Camp is considerably more than a mere side project.

To call Paleface’s backstory colorful is like calling the current economic crisis a slight correction. The singer/songwriter learned how to write songs from cult hero Daniel Johnston, helped found New York City’s anti-folk movement (becoming the first within the scene to secure a major label deal), recorded 14 albums (mostly self-released) since the early ’90s, helped mentor Beck when he was a fledgling artist and nearly died 13 years ago from a withering liver due to a longstanding alcohol problem.

On his 15th album and debut for Ramseur, The Show Is on the Road, Paleface — who plays the Southgate House Saturday night — plays his unique vision of urban Folk, which includes flecks of Country (“Traveling from North Carolina”), Punk (“Holy Holy”) and Hip Hop (the brilliant “A Cheatin’ Song”) and comes out sounding like an open mic mash-up of Mick Jagger, Billy Bragg, Jonathan Richman, Tom Waits, Violent Femmes and Ray Davies. Accompanied by drummer/girlfriend Monica “Mo” Samalot, Paleface presents 10 of Show’s 11 tracks as a parting love letter to New York, from the obvious  (“New York, New York”) to the sublime (“You Are the Girl”); the album’s final song, “Pondering the Night Sky,” is an ode to his new North Carolina home.

Paleface has had enough dramatic irony for three careers (Kramer erased an entire album that Paleface had done with the producer, and Sire backed away from promoting his 1996 album, Gett Off, because they didn’t want to cross-compete with Beck’s Geffen debut, Mellow Gold), but it sure would be appropriate if his fond farewell to New York was his biggest hit.

Once upon a decade and a half ago, Tim Easton was making a big noise out of the Ohio state capitol with the Haynes Boys, his ass-kicking Americana outfit. When that good thing came to a natural end,  Easton launched his lauded solo career with 1999’s excellent Special 20, which was followed by a succession of equally impressive albums (2001’s The Truth About Us, 2003’s Break Your Mother’s Heart, 2006’s Ammunition) and increasingly glowing praise.

Since Easton’s relocation to Joshua Tree — the site of Gram Parson’s impromptu Viking funeral — he has become more acoustically reflective, particularly on his last outing, Ammunition. Easton felt the need to blow some of the rust out of his pipes and return to the craggy Roots Rock of his Buckeye days; as a result, Porcupine bristles with the prickly charm of his album’s title animal. Backed by former Haynes Boys bassist Matt Surgeson and ex-New Bomb Turks drummer Sam Brown, Easton sounds positively rejuvenated.

“Burgundy Red” shimmies like a Roots Rock spy theme while “Broke My Heart” lopes like a John Hiatt/Nick Lowe Pub Rock tribute to Everclear and the title track storms along like a BoDeans/Cracker collaboration. Even when Easton slips back into the quieter acoustic mode of his recent past — the Blues slither of “The Young Girls,” the Ry Cooderesque Folk contemplation of “Stones Throw Away,” the Ryan Adams-tinged “7th Wheel” — he’s still clearly sparking with a newfound intensity. Obviously, Tim Easton doesn’t need to steer his sound away from the gentler direction he’s taken of late because it suits him well, but Porcupine shows he hasn’t lost any of the power and bluster that got him there in the first place.

When Los Straitjackets first burst into the overground consciousness 15 years ago, the novelty of the band’s Mexican wrestling masked personas was quickly absorbed into the perception that the band was essentially an instrumental Surf band with an interesting gimmick. To avoid being constrained by the image they created, Los Straitjackets went on an extended bender of doing projects that didn‘t fit their own mold, including an album featuring guest vocalists and another comprised of covers of the south-of-the-border songs that they loved as teenagers.

For their latest album, The Further Adventures of Los Straitjackets, the quartet was determined to return to the Garage Rock roots that had defined their earliest work. After revisiting heroes like The Ventures and Link Wray, the band dipped into Rock and Punk catalogs as well, and came away inspired by the broad expanse between the two extremes. From the Garage-stained, full throttle clip of disc opener “Cal-Speed” to the slinky SCOTS homage of “Fortune Cookie” to the tribal Dick Dale rumble of “Teen Beast” to the Mancini-esque swing of “Tubby,” it’s clear that Los Straitjackets have crafted one of the most visceral, immediate and cinematic albums of their career.

Seventeen years ago, the last two remaining original member of Black Sabbath — guitarist Tony Iommi and bassist Geezer Butler — teamed with longtime post-Ozzy vocalist Ronnie James Dio and hammer-and-tong drummer Vinny Appice for the Dehumanizer album, which was hailed as a return to classic form for the foursome. That was hardly a surprise as this was the exact lineup that had recorded 1980’s Heaven and Hell, the first Sabbath album after the ejection of Ozzy Osbourne in 1978 and a work that is widely considered the best Dio-fronted Sabbath recording. Two years ago, Rhino reconvened the lineup to record new bonus tracks for The Dio Years compilation, which led to a hugely successful world tour.

The quartet was still jacked up after the tour so they decamped to Iommi’s home studio in London to write and record and then continued at Dio’s in L.A. Rather than release the results under the Sabbath brand, the group decided to take the name Heaven & Hell, the title of their most acclaimed album together, as their moniker.

For their “debut,” The Devil You Know, the fearsome foursome stacks Iommi’s brutal riffs and Dio’s soaring vocals over the bedrock foundation of one of Metal’s most thunderstruck rhythm sections to craft a sound that is more than familiar to anyone who has been following the Sabbath soap opera for the past three decades. Indicative of the whole is the album’s first single, the slamming “Bible Black,” which begins with a quiet delicacy that quickly gives way to blistering guitar and a pummeling pulse, all woven together with Dio’s inimitable voice.

Just as powerful is “Fear,” a dark Metal rumination that channels Sabbath’s earliest and bleakest inclinations. If there was any suspicion that this aggregation, whatever name you care to hang on them, had somehow lost power and relevance, The Devil You Know is potent evidence to the contrary.

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