Sister Hazel, Glenn Tilbrook, Alec Ounsworth, Lisa Germano and Even Frank Zappa

In some circumstances, a solo project from a hot band's lead vocalist might signal a little trouble in paradise, but Clap Your Hands Say Yeah frontman Alec Ounsworth merely seems like a restless creative spirit that can't be contained by a single outlet.

Jan 7, 2010 at 2:06 pm

Contrary to my wife’s dire predictions, we survived hosting her family for the annual Christmas Day celebration. As the youngest of seven, with a large extended group of nieces and nephews (and now, amazingly, their children), Melissa has constantly felt the scrutiny of her older siblings, often imagining it to be considerably more pointed and critical than it's ever been in actual fact. She was worried that they would be overly critical of her food in both choice and preparation, judgmental about the house and uncomfortable in a home that's less roomy than their spacious dwellings.

Absolutely none of that happened. Everyone loved the food, offered no opinions on the state of our home (largely unchanged other than painting since we moved in a decade ago) and seemed to be completely at ease in our slightly smaller yet infinitely livable environment. In fact, everyone was so complimentary about the accommodations in general that there’s already been talk of hosting next year’s shindig too.

I, for one, couldn’t be happier. It was a lot of work — I did the bulk of the cleaning, including all three bathrooms and an almost insurmountable level of straightening in The Bunker — but clearly worth it at the end of a really great party. I'll be ready to do it all over again.

Of course, all that time expended on making our guests feel at home has eaten into my writing and reviewing time, which has put me well behind schedule here, so apologies all around for that. Once again, I’m digging deeper into the stacks to find titles to review due to the unsurprising lack of releases at this time of year (pretty much the only two new releases last week were Dave Matthews’ live box set, Mr. Sawed-Off's debut and the Jimi Hendrix catalog, re-released by Experience Hendrix in the MP3 format for anyone looking to expand the Hendrix section of their iPod playlist).

So let’s take a trip in the ISBR time machine and revisit a few titles from earlier in a pretty spectacular year for music.

The title of the new Sister Hazel album serves something of a dual purpose. Release could refer to the generic term for the album itself, and the black and white lineup of the band and glaringly plain typography on the cover supports that assertion. And yet, Release represents a very different creative approach for Sister Hazel, a band that has been fairly successful over the past decade and a half, selling a couple million units in a catalog of six studio albums and nine live/specialty releases.

For their seventh official album (which hit the street back in August), the Gainesville quintet decided to spread the songwriting duties among all five members rather than rely on main creative sparkplug Ken Block, who has shouldered the bulk of the writing and singing chores to this point. As a result, the album’s title could also represent the band unshackling itself from a method of operation that covers almost its entire timeline. With all five Hazels stirring the song pot, Release stands as the most diverse and ultimately one of the most satisfying albums in the band’s history.

The album’s title track opens the set with a gentle kick, ambling along like Blues Traveller channeling a mid-tempo Stones smoker, followed by the melodic lover’s kiss off “Take a Bow,” both co-written by guitarist Ryan Newell. In the spirit of full disclosure, it should be noted that most of the group’s non-writers offered some able assistance; Mike Daly, Pat McGee, ex-Tonic frontman Emerson Hart, ex-Heartbreaker Stan Lynch and a number of others all throw their expertise into the mix.

Only Block and bassist Jett Beres write without support on Release; Block’s work has long been Sister Hazel’s foundation, but Beres’ two offerings — the contemplative “Vacation Rain” and the loping rocker “Ghost in the Crowd” — are revelations and perhaps hints that the bassist should have more creative input going forward.

The album’s one slow spot is guitarist Drew Copeland’s “One Life,” co-written by Lynch and Britton Cameron, a syrupy piano ballad that a higher profile artist like Tim McGraw could spin into Country Pop gold but seems a little out of place for the Hazels. In any event, Release stands as an excellent album as a whole and could signal Sister Hazel's new creative direction.

In some circumstances, a solo project from a hot band’s lead vocalist might signal a little trouble in paradise, but Clap Your Hands Say Yeah frontman Alec Ounsworth merely seems like a restless creative spirit that can’t be contained by a single outlet. CYHSY hasn’t had a new album since their excellent (but largely same-same) 2007 sophomore album, Some Loud Thunder, but 2009 saw two releases from Ounsworth that had nothing to do with his primary band. He released the completely unheralded debut of his latest project, Flashy Python (with members of Dr. Dog, The Walkmen and Man Man), in August and followed that two months later with his solo debut, Mo Beauty.

Mo Beauty was recorded with producer Steve Berlin in New Orleans, and while the bulk of the material was already written, the album bears the unmistakable mark of The Big Easy, from the loping syncopation to the second line backbeat to the general booze-in-church atmosphere. And while Ounsworth doesn’t move too far from his established CHYSY sonic persona — a base of Talking Heads with dashes of the Violent Femmes and Destroyer to taste — he detours down a number of fascinating side streets, from the Tom Waits/Magic Band carnival soul of “Bones in the Grave” to the Eno-produces-Tusk epic Pop of “That Is Not My Home” to the weaving Byrne-skewed processional of “South Philadelphia (Drug Days).”

Mo Beauty is certainly no departure for Ounsworth, but it's further solid evidence of his formidable musical abilities and points the way to a long and influential future.

For someone with seven years of John Mellencamp recording and touring experience on her résumé, one might expect Lisa Germano to be a bigger commercial force than she has been to date. To her credit, she's always been more interested in pursuing her own unique muse than capitalizing on her high profile affiliations. Germano’s singularly crafted albums have all been steeped in a darkly hopeful atmosphere and attracted great critical acclaim and a small but fiercely loyal fan base. Whether on a major label or a respected indie, she has woven a sonic spell that has incorporated equal measures of joy and heartbreak, triumph and tragedy, serenity and discord.

With her 2006 signing to Michael Gira’s Young God label and the release of the wonderfully bleak In the Maybe World, Germano may well have found the perfect home for her intimate and sometimes disturbingly beautiful creative vision, further evidenced by her sophomore YGR release, the evocative Magic Neighbor, released last September.

In just over half an hour, Germano nudges the listener along a gorgeous journey of melancholy wonder on Magic Neighbor, her 11th release since her 1991 solo debut. “To the Mighty One” displays all of Germano’s gifts in a single sitting; powerful melodies presented with tremulous hesitance, avant atmospherics applied to a Pop foundation and a brilliant tension between hope and despair. When she sings, “It’s a beautiful day,” it’s clear that the declaration is wrought with balanced amounts of confidence and doubt. “Simple” is a lovely ditty that knits together Psych Folk, ambient Pop and a cinematic perspective that Sam Phillips or Jane Siberry would be proud to claim, while “Kitty Train” traverses terrain familiar to fans of Kate Bush. “The Prince of Plati” wouldn’t be out of place in a Kristin Hersh or an Eels session and “A Million Times” could be a lost Elvis Costello track.

But at the end of the relatively brief but completely satisfying Magic Neighbor, it’s not who or what Germano sounds like or how she managed to capture her bottled lightning, it’s how she makes you feel at your core. And whether she’s casting a gray shadow, shining a faltering light or painting a gorgeous picture in muted colors, Lisa Germano fills her listeners with wistful hope and melancholy contentment.

After a quarter century of urbane Punk/Pop brilliance (which was admittedly often just short of brilliance), Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford opted to close the lid on Squeeze in 1999 and embark on solo paths. Given Tilbrook’s more visible profile as the more recognizable voice of the group, he clearly had a leg up in the solo arena, but the fact is that Squeeze’s memorable songs were very much the product of a collaborative process and each solo artist suffered, to a certain extent, from the absence of the other. Still, Tilbrook came out slightly ahead in the wash with his 2001 solo debut, The Incomplete Glenn Tilbrook, and its more effective follow-up, 2004’s Transatlantic Ping Pong.

In the interim, Tilbrook and Difford have patched things up for limited Squeeze reunion shows and Tilbrook has assembled an actual band, The Fluffers, which includes two members of the reconstituted Squeeze, to tour and record.

All of this, combined with the presence of co-writers, may account for the cohesive sound of Tilbrook’s third solo release, Pandemonium Ensues, which dropped in April. And yet the cohesion of Tilbrook and The Fluffers as a performing unit shouldn’t imply that the quartet possesses any kind of stylistic uniformity. From Pandemonium’s opening track, the Zydeco/Brit Folk reel of “Best of Times,” it’s evident that Tilbrook is more than willing to take a few chances and venture well beyond the twisted Pop comfort zone he'd established with his more famous band and previous solo situations.

On “Through the Net,” Tilbrook and company drift into epic Pop territory, while “Product” finds them crafting an expansively cinematic sound with bassist Lucy Shaw taking the lead vocal and, in doing so, approximating the role that Difford always filled in Squeeze, namely as a decent vocalist deliberately singing in a monochromatic fashion to interesting effect.

If anyone doubts Tilbrook’s ability to dust the rafters, “Slaughtered Artist” stomps and shouts with unbridled abandon for a thrilling two-and-a-half minutes, followed by “Still,” as soulful as the best of Squeeze’s East Side Story era. On first listen, Pandemonium Ensues might seem like something of a sonic scrapbook, but in reality the album is quite simply an effective showcase of Tilbrook’s astonishing stylistic diversity and Pop expertise.

For another Rolling Stones to rise through the ranks of Rock, a competent band needs to discover the authentic Blues and translate it in a meaningful, creative and singular fashion. The formula is even simpler for a new Aerosmith — that same band discovers the Stones and reads about their influences.

But in the unwritten future of Rock, there will likely never be another Frank Zappa. His musical evolution was a perfect storm of avant Classical curiosity, a passion for ‘50s Pop and Blues forms and a serendipitous coming of age during the tumultuous birth of Rock. His genius is unmatched — as a guitarist, as a composer, as a social/cultural/political commentator, as an entertainer, as a sonic innovator. In the three decades that he created his amazing musical universe before his untimely death from cancer in 1993, Zappa became that rarest of Rock entities: an artist so fingerprintably identifiable and unique that his work can be compared and quantified only against itself.

Although Zappa’s singular voice was silenced 16 years ago, his almost pathological desire to document his work, particularly in the live arena, means that his family and colleagues will be sifting through a mountain of tapes and finding new examples of his brilliance for many years to come. The latest nugget to be retrieved from the archive is Philly '76, a two-disc set that was released last month on what would have been Zappa’s 69th birthday.

Philly '76 is significant for a variety of reasons: It represents Zappa in relatively stripped-down mode (guitarist/vocalist Ray White, vocalist/keyboardist Bianca Odin, bassist Patrick O’Hearn, keyboardist Eddie Jobson, drummer Terry Bozzio); it’s the only 16-track recording of this particular lineup; and it finds Zappa revisiting songs from his earlier recordings that he rarely hauled out live, including wondrous spins on “Rudy Wants to Buy Yez a Drink,” “Would You Go All the Way?,” “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy,” “Chrissy Puked Twice” (better known as “Titties & Beer”) and a transcendent version of The Cadets’ “Stranded in the Jungle.”

Odin is an impressive vocal presence, taking the Napoleon Murphy Brock lead on Overnite Sensation’s “Dirty Love,” finding the heart of Freak Out’s “You Didn’t Try to Call Me” and offering beautifully soulful accompaniment everywhere else, particularly on “Wind Up Workin’ in a Gas Station” and as the dungeon victim in “The Torture Never Stops” from the then-new Zoot Allures.

It goes without saying that Zappa is in fine guitar form, still a long way from becoming bored with six-string heroism. And, true to form, the band is in absolute crack form, ultimately making Philly '76 yet another essential acquisition for the veteran Zappaphile. And the addition of the Declaration of Independence in the liner notes — with the contemporarily applicable bits highlighted in red, for easy reference — is a perfectly Frank-like touch.