Lee's Listening Stack: The Best of the Rest for May

Yukon Blonde
Tiger Talk
(Dine Alone Records)

Put aside any notion of fair-haired babes in Eskimo garb… and key in on the idea that despite any frigid environs the name may suggest, Yukon Blonde is one hot combo. One of the real highlights of last year’s Mariposa Fest, this young Canadian outfit displays a seasoned savvy that finds them on quite a roll only two albums on. Tiger Talk is pure pop exuberance, from the one-two-three punch of the album’s first three tracks – “My Girl,” “Radio” and “Stairway” -- to the Beach Boys-like celebration of “Oregon Shores” and the final soaring send-off of “Sweet Dee.” Those who like an unabashedly catchy chorus and enough enthusiasm to make old-timers blush, will find it all here and then some. Yukon Blonde bear watching, and for that matter, listening to as well. With a little luck, they may nail enough critical kudos to win them notice as one of the breakout bands of the year. In that regard, Tiger Talk speaks volumes. (www.yukonblonde.com)

 

Jess Klein
Behind a Veil
(Motherlode Records)

Running the gamut between heart-wrenching laments and sassy shout-outs, Jess Klein’s latest effort shows why she ought to be Americana’s next big thing. Klein possesses one of those indelible voices that that can go from a sultry rumble to a plaintive wail even while grabbing attention on first encounter. It embosses these tunes with an urgency and emotion that makes such songs as “Mona” and “Behind a Veil” both vulnerable and vivacious. Tender ballads like “A Room of Your Own” and “Wilson Street Serenade” are the sort of thing that a singer can pin a career on, embossed with a bittersweet sadness that rings with universal appeal, the kind every lost lover can obviously relate to. There’s also a hint of Bonnie Raitt and Lucinda Williams in her cries of recrimination, but clearly Klein is way too good to be tied to common comparisons. An excellent album – a career-maker in fact – Behind a Veil ought to lift the curtain and bring her success.(www.jessklein.com)

 

Good Lovelies
Let the Rain Fall
(Factor)

This cheery Canadian trio resurrects the sound of classic harmony groups circa the ‘40s and ‘50s (think the Andrews Sisters in particular) with a whimsical blend of up-tempo melodies that should find them winning an audience well beyond the borders of our northern neighbor. The sheer giddiness of songs like “Made for Rain,” “Oh, What a Thing” and “Kiss Me in the Kitchen” can’t help but implant a smile on any listener’s face, thanks to an infectious energy and joyful sentiments exuded so gleefully. Despite the lack of a sibling connection, these three ladies -- Caroline Brooks, Kerri Ough and Sue Passmore – create a seamless vocal blend that often suggests a sisterly sound, and when they meld their voices on the sweetly sentimental “Home,” it’s positively breathtaking. Let the Rain Fall is old school to be sure, but the appeal is timeless, and despite any implication offered in the title, it’s consistently sunny all the way through. (www.goodlovelies.com)

 

Mairi Morrison & Alasdair Roberts
Urstan
(Drag City)

Fans of Anglo folk of the traditional variety will find a lot to enjoy in this stirring union of Gaelic singer Mairi Morrison and Scottish singer/songwriter Alasdair Roberts. After all, each is an exceptional artist accomplished in his and her own area of expertise. Borne from an impromptu session as Glasgow’s Centre for Contemporary Arts, the pair found a common thread in their fascination with the folk music of their native environs. Together then, they weave a tapestry of poetry and purity in both Gaelic and Scottish dialects. Happily though, language is never a barrier, and whether it’s the spry serenade of “Mile Marbhphaisg Air a’ Ghaol,” the heart-melting balladry of “The Laird o’ the Drum” or the timeless sentiment of “The Tri-Coloured House,” the appeal is evident and eternal. This is music of the old country, faithfully preserved by musicians who cherish the tradition and are adept at carrying it forward. That makes Urstan a rare treat indeed. (www.dragcity.com)

 

The Explorers Club
Grand Hotel
(Rock Ridge Music)

Given that modern day science has yet to invent a time machine, consider the Explorers Club the next best thing, at least from a musical point of view. While their debut album seemed to channel the Beach Boys, Grand Hotel effectively expands their parameters, neatly encapsulating all that was sunny about the ‘60s. This is pop at its purest, a sound that recreates the radio ready sound of decades past, drenched in the vibrant arrangements and happy-go-lucky effervescence that once reigned at the top of the pops. From a cover photo that looks like it was spawned from the Tijuana Brass, to the giddy gems that reference what often seems a cast of thousands – big names like Burt Bacharach as well as lesser-known entities on the order of the Buckinghams and the Foundations. Whether playing extravagant instrumentals such as “Acapulco (Sunrise)” and the title track or plying the cheerful tidings of “Sweet Delights” and “Run Run Run,” this Grand Hotel offers the impression it has room to sparre. Still, we would suggest a change of moniker. The better name might have been Memory Motel. (www.explorersclub.music.com)

  

Zak Smith
S/T
(self-released)

Sometimes great music seems to spring up unexpected. Consider, for example, this hard-scrapple self-titled set by New Jersey-bred Zak Smith. With a scratchy yet effusive voice that recalls Steve Forbert at his most pining, Smith and his adept ensemble – as well as a seemingly constant soulful choir – purvey an embrace that takes hold from first note to last. Opening track “Brand New Party” delivers all the title promises while “As the Bodies Pile Up,” “Traitor’s Way” and “Difficult Times” imbue an earnest emotion that often comes only after years of hard-fraught circumstance. Smith’s delivery is well paced throughout; “Crawling,” for example is anything bought, its propulsive rhythms tinged with a hint of exotic exuberance while the breathless enthusiasm of “Cynthia” seems barely contained. Rarely has an artist emerged so ready for prime time and so fully-formed, but based on this, his second outing (following closely of last year’s mini-LP Haunted Feet), Smith’s time has already arrived. (www.zaksmithband.com)

 

Trevor Moss & Hannah-Lou
Quality First, Last & Forever
(Heavenly Recordings)

Unadorned and cheerfully unencumbered, husband and wife duo Trevor Moss and Hannah-Lou make sing-along folk songs of the old school variety -- innocent, acoustic and unerringly optimistic. While the album title appears to set a high bar, the simplicity of sound promises full compliance, and indeed Hannah-Lou’s silken vocals and the pair’s caressing harmonies offer a gentle embrace. Veering from the giddy, get up and go enticement of “Making It Count” to the star-lit, celestial sound of “Big Water” and the quiet sway of “A Hill Far, Far Away” the music takes its gentle twists and turns without ever jarring the proceedings. Cheery and chirpy at times, the burnished arrangements suggest an intimate evening spent in front of the hearth or a gathering of friends around a campfire, emanating the warm glow of wistful reassurance. “Come lie down next to me,” Hannah-Lou coos on “The Stargazers’ Gutter,” more or less typical of the soothing suggestion they offer overall. A nice beginning, Quality First, Last & Forever provides welcome reassurance for a troubled world. (www.trevormossandhannahlou.com)

 

Orpheum Bell
The Old Sister’s Home

(independent)

Given Aaron Klein’s crusty rasp and the band’s penchant for a good tango, Orpheum Bell initially comes across as an unlikely combination of old world enchantment and the foreboding sound of middle period Tom Waits. That may seem strange at first, but the band’s ability to meld a plucky rhythm with sinewy arrangements breeds some interesting encounters, particularly when it comes to the enticing “Poor Laetitita,” the playful “Family Pictures” or the seductive instrumental come-on invoked by the title track. Banjo, accordion, glockenspiel, trumpet, xylophone, violins and trumpet all play a significant role in the proceedings, and if this, the band’s third album, sometimes sounds like a cross between a gypsy lament and a celebratory song for a Greek wedding, then that only affirms the band’s ability to tug at their roots. In that way, Orpheum Bell defies description, which for many will likely make their self-described “Country and Eastern” mélange all the more entrancing indeed. (www.orpheumbell.com)

 

Michael Chapman
Rainmaker
(Fly Records)

Originally released in 1969, Rainmaker marked Michael Chapman’s debut, an innovative album that combined freeform guitar instrumentals with lovelorn ballads and a particularly sharp and sinewy perspective. Like his peers – Ralph McTell, Roy Harper, Bert Jansch and Al Stewart, Chapman had a way of articulating traditional styles, be it blues or British folk, and then making the result his own. An exceptional guitarist, Rainmaker finds him delving into a variety of sounds, from the wistful rumination of “You Say” to the arch, Roy Harper-like “Small Stones,” but ultimately it reflects a man confident, creative and ready to share his talents with the world. Guest musicians Danny Thompson, Aynsley Dunbar and Rick Kemp (later of Steeleye Span) add muscle to the arrangements, although it’s clear, even early on, that Chapman was a singular individual. Forty years later, the album sounds as embracing as ever, and augmented by half a dozen bonus tracks recorded at the same sessions (among them, such oddities as “Mozart Lives Upstairs” and “Bert Jansch Meets Frankenstein”), Rainmaker becomes an album worthy of rediscovery. (www.lightintheattice.net)

 

Charlene Soraia
Moonchild
(Peacefrog Holdings Ltd.)

Treading a line between the celestial and the sensual, Charlene Soraia offers a delicate disc with a name that’s blithely appropriate considering the circumstance. While several of the tunes – “Daffodils,” “’Twas Lovely,” and “Lightyears” being ideal examples – seem to meander into atmospheric realms, Soraia also finds her way into more compact circumstance, suggesting Joni Mitchell or Sarah McLaughlan at their most sublime. And when songs like “Meadow Child” and the ironically dubbed “Bipolar” pick up the pace and actually find some rollicking tempos, Soraia’s accessibility factor accelerates accordingly. Overall, Moonchild provides a delightfully engaging experience, although that’s due more to mood than merriment. Consider it a stargazing sojourn of the highest order, one that suggests the word “lovely” isn’t too generous a description.  (www.charlenesoraia.com)

 

Wheeler Brothers
Portraits
(Bismeaux Records)

There’s something to be said about a band of brothers. No matter whether it’s the Avetts, the Allmans, the Beach Boys or the Brother Gibbs, the harmonies and commonness of purpose ensures a carefully sense of melody and direction, making instant engagement as practically a given. The Wheeler Brothers follow that same formula, and while their sound can’t exactly be typecast as Americana, there is a heartland sensibility that shines through each of these articulately crafted tunes. “Mississippi,” “Portraits” and “Spent Time” shine with a resilience that’s both riveting and wistful, underscored with a core sense of savvy that’s immediately apparent. In large part that’s due to the rich arrangements that allow the material to take flight -- a mesh of banjo, glockenspiel, accordion, pump organ and pedal steel, all in addition to the usual rock regalia. Likewise, there’s an upturned attitude that allows each offering to soar to a higher strata. An impressive debut, Portraits paints the picture of a supremely talented band that’s about to take the masses by storm. (www.wheelerbrothersmusic.com)

 

Great Lake Swimmers
New Wild Everywhere
(Nettwerk)

Those that have followed the progress of Canada’s Great Lake Swimmers know something that the world at large is generally unaware of, and that is that this band is one of the finest purveyors of melodic rock and Americana who are making music these days. That may seem like a bold statement, but it’s hardly an exaggeration; in terms of song craft and a supple delivery, they excel where most outfits only hope to tread. New Wild Everywhere provides all the affirmation necessary, from the easy, engaging lilt of songs like “The Great Exhale” and “Changes With the Wind,” to the gentle caress of its beautiful ballads “Parkdale Blues” and “On the Water.” Here again, Great Lake Swimmers make each of their efforts shine, and do it with such care and precision nothing is ever too obvious. Fiddles and pedal steel guitars enhance the arrangements, but it’s those melodies themselves that seal the deal. (www.weewerrk.com)

 

JD McPherson
Signs & Signifiers
(Hi-Style Records/Rounder)

JD McPherson is one cool rocking cat. With an album that divides its wares between rockabilly and R&B, McPherson and company show off their old school spirit and summon up a juke joint feel in he process -- all smoke rings and lights down low – while tailor made for a rowdy crowd itching for action on a Saturday night. “North Side Gal,” “Fire Bug” and “Scratching Circles” represent the kind of upbeat, no nonsense rockers guaranteed to keep the fans on the dance floor and showing off their latest moves. Admittedly, Signs & Signifiers is the kind of album that sounds out of sync in these high-tech times, kind of like the Stray Cats sounded back in the day. But that’s only a momentary issue. Once you get deep into these sinewy grooves, chances are you won’t want to come up for air. McPherson struts his stuff with the best of them, and chances are that within a short time, he’ll be shaking the rafters in a club near you. (www.hi-stylerecords.com)

 

Crooked Fingers
Breaks in the Armor (Acoustic Demo Version)
(Merge)

Previously released as an I-Tunes and fan club exclusive, the acoustic demos for Crooked Fingers’ recent album, the magnificent Breaks in the Armor, aren’t so much a revelation as a complement to the beautifully understated motif offered up in the original. While the completed arrangements were both captivating and compelling, Eric Bachmann’s richest recording to date, these demos strip the songs down to their essence. Rather than reflect some skeletal template, they demonstrate their emotional origins and further affirm the purity of the sentiments initially conveyed. “Heavy Hours” and “War Horses” become languid love songs, while the searing “Typhoon” is even more stunning in this stark and and sensual rendition. The haunting ambiance that Bachmann crafted around these songs still remains – a listen to the fuzzy “Black Candles” makes that abundantly obvious – but the tension in the finished version now becomes more a matter of reflection. Likewise, played out on acoustic guitar, “Went to the City” acquires a genuine folk finesse. A revealing glimpse into origins of Crooked Fingers’ definitive album, this alternate version is equally essential. (www.mergerecords.com)

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Tags: Alasdair, Bell, Blonde, Brothers, Chapman, Charlene, Club, Crooked, Explorer's, Fingers, More…Great, Hannah-Lou, JD, Lake, Mairi, McPherson, Michael, Morrison, Moss, Orpheum, Roberts, Smith, Soraia, Swimmers, Trevor, Wheeler, Yukon, Zak

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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.