First Listen: One Dozen Discs
It’s been some time since I posted a blog on this site, so I thought I’d pull myself back into the ring with a round of first-listen reviews. The CDs have, after all, been piling up quite rapidly along the wall in my bedroom/office, and the time has come to hack into them. So, I grabbed a handful (turned out to be 12) and will proceed to go through them one at a time, sharing my first impressions with you fine folks. With any luck, there will be a couple worth recommending, and we can all find some new music together. Shall we? In no particular order:
KATE TUCKER – WHITE HORSES
Kate Tucker apparently lives here in Seattle, and I’m surprised I haven’t seen her some night at the Tractor. She’s backed by several notable local instrumentalists. The name I know best is Ty Bailie (who plays organ, piano, and Wurlitzer here), from the fact that he’s sat in with Visqueen, Department of Energy, Mark Pickerel, and others. Blake Wescott, who’s worked with Dave Bazan, produced this. It’s definitely quite polished and well-considered. Tucker has a sweet, very girly voice, all full of treble. There’s a very subtle indication of twang in it sometimes – subtle enough that I wonder whether she’s trying to draw it out or suppress it. Her lyrics are all sad, I think, and full of longing. I tune them out pretty quickly into each song because they don’t do anything surprising enough to make me hone in on them. The really interesting stuff here is in the instrumentation. But, though there are little surprise notes that wrest the melodies away from any formulaic boredom, even that doesn’t seem to be grabbing me right now. I’ll listen to this again, maybe. Or make a point of paying close attention if I find myself at one of her shows in the coming months.
STUART MOXHAM – PERSONAL BEST
There was a band in the ’90s called Team Dresch – an all-lesbian rock band from Olympia that included the impeccable balls-to-the-wall rock and roll of Kaia Wilson (who went on to form the Butchies in NC and has played in Amy Ray’s band since then) and Donna Dresch. I was a fan. Their big album was Personal Best (named for the film of the same name). Just had to get that reference out of the way, since that was the first thing that came to mind when I picked up this album. Moxham’s music couldn’t possibly be more opposite from Team Dresch. I’m immediately intimidated by the fact that there are 20 songs here. Twenty! That’s asking a lot of a 21st century audience whose attention span can’t even make it through a 30-second TV commercial (where a remarkable number of great indie bands wind up getting heard moreso than on the radio). But a quick read through the liners tells me this is a retrospective of Moxham’s past 30 years, what he’s been up to since the Young Marble Giants. Okay, the music: there’s a Jonathan Richman-esque quality going on here. Kings of Convenience comes to mind as a comparison, as do the Beach Boys. It’s deceptively simple. Relaxed without being sleepy. There’s an acoustic guitar getting strummed back there, but its tone is so distant I think it’s just there for rhythm. Canned drums (maybe?) and shakers, hand claps, innovative island beats, syncopated unison singing between Stuart and some woman which can only be described as “groovy”, clever pop elements (the kind of pop I like, which seems to be resurging these days from indie folks; not the kind Britney Spears makes). Mental note to learn more about Young Marble Giants and spend more time with this album. This could become my favorite album of the summer. But it’s still spring; too soon to truly make that call.
RUTH GERSON – THIS CAN’T BE MY LIFE
This isn’t my thing. It sounds like she’s trying to sing sexy, which doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the actual words she’s singing. The times when she blows off the moany-groany affectation, I’m led to believe she’s got an impressive set of pipes, but unfortunately that doesn’t happen too often. As is, the groping-toward-sexiness is too distracting from whatever else is going on back there. Moving on.
MARK BATES – DOWN THE NARROW
This is pretty good singer-songwriter stuff, story songs. I’m guessing Mark travels alone, performing only with acoustic guitar; but the album has a lot of watery organ stuff in the background and some other additional, but tasteful, instrumentation. Still, you can easily hear where the songs and Bates’ singular skills can stand on their own. “The Promised Land” is the gold nugget here. He does a respectable cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “Flyin’ Shoes” with an excellent rolling cymbal intro that sounds like a rain storm, right into the lyric “Days full of rain…” Well done. I’ll give this one a few more spins, at least, and recommend it to y’all in good conscience.
DAVID BALL – SPARKLE CITY
First, a note about album cover art. It’s wrong to judge a book by its cover – yes. But every now and then an album arrives with cover art so ridiculous, I’d rather giggle over it than listen to the music inside. Maybe that makes me a bad person, but it’s honest. Luckily, I’m well aware David Ball is a talented guy, so I let it go. But there he is on the cover blowing a handful of glitter and sparkling stars. The font is awful. Et cetera. Just saying. But, Ball makes good music. The songs are good, honky tonk country tunes. There’s nothing to complain about here. It’s just a fun record, and will be good for road tripping this summer.
JEN OLIVE – WARM ROBOT
Speaking of cover art, this one looks like it could be an electronic album. It’s not. It’s solo singer-songwriter stuff on an electric guitar. Olive wrote, recorded, produced, played and sang everything herself. It’s very artful and interesting. I bet I could listen to this twenty times and have a different idea about it every time. There’s not a lick of twang or Americana, roots, or anything along those lines here…well, maybe in the instrumentation at the beginning of “Querquehouse.” Mostly it’s straight-up indie pop, derivative of nothing. The closest comparison I can draw here is maybe Laura Veirs, when she’s with her full band. It’s that kind of unexpected, fully imagined music that doesn’t try to fit anywhere or be anything. It’s not perfect – there are a couple of muddy missteps (“Wire Wire”) – but it’s hard to fault her. One can only hope she keeps at it. I’ll be listening to this record again. Geez, this little exercise is turning up some great music today.
DEER TICK – THE BLACK DIRT SESSIONS
We all know by now that Deer Tick is an excellent band, right? This is a terrific album that I feel somewhat deserves more of a full review than can come from this first listen (maybe I’ll do that later, once I’ve listened several times). On the other hand, “you should hear this” should also suffice. It’s simple when it doesn’t need more than the bare essentials (“Piece by Piece and Frame by Frame”). It’s held up by more lush instrumentation when the songs seem to call for that on their own (“Hand in My Hand,” “Choir of Angels”). This is a band who knows how to serve the songs. When they need to whisper, they whisper; when they need to scream, they scream. “I Will Not Be Myself” plays with some interesting lyrical rhythms, and meanders in unexpected melodic directions. You don’t know where that song is going to go, so there’s no option but to keep listening, rapt. This could be my favorite album of this bunch so far.
DARRELL SCOTT – A CROOKED ROAD
Surprising probably no one, this is an excellent record. It’s dedicated to “the gifts of Les Paul,” which is nice. It’s a two-disc collection recorded at Scott’s home, which sees him playing every single instrument. Considering this was entirely a solo project (aside from the engineering), a tip of the hat has to go to Scott for self-editing. There’s hardly a hair out of place across these discs, and few tracks which stand out as gratuitous or irrelevant, at least on first listen. “The Day Before Thanksgiving” is an early highlight of Disc One, walking that fine line between the personal and political (teetering perhaps more toward the latter). Disc two gets a little sappy toward the middle (“Tonight I’m Missing You,” specifically). It’s the kind of sappiness that could well grow on me after a few spins, though, so I’m not willing to write it off just yet. There are other high points (“Colorado,” “Willow Creek”) to pull it back from flirting with the saccharine.
TERRI TARANTULA – SELF-TITLED
Terri Moeller was the voice of Transmissionary Six – a local Seattle band I dug on when they were together – and drummer for another band called the Walkabouts. This album is a “solo” project of sorts that sees her pairing up with some notable local players. It’s quiet and low, dark, rainy indie rock. It definitely has a groove and some notable atomspherics, but I like songs that go somewhere, that evolve or grow or modulate, or something. These just don’t. They’re certainly emotionally effective, but I’m missing the music here. It’s kind of the equivalent of a film which just shows someone walking. There’s a certain calm, detached artistry to that, but you have to come at it with the right frame of mind, and not expect anything. I can’t get into it. Next.
SID SELVIDGE – I SHOULD BE BLUE
This is a very quiet album. Or, at least it starts out that way. A just-fine turn on “That’s How I Got to Memphis,” which feels damn near silent. More instrumentation comes later, but it remains sparse throughout. There are a few okay duets with Amy Speace, including Donovan’s “Catch the Wind” and Townes Van Zandt’s “I’ll Be Here in the Morning.” As technically proficient as this record is – the harmonies are tight and easy, the musicianship is inarguably on-point – there’s something which is just lacking. It doesn’t do that thing to me; that stirring, provocative thing which makes my emotions light up with exclamation points. Though I’d like it to stick harder, I think I’ll pass.
JIM MORAY – A BEGINNER’S GUIDE
This is kind of nice. There’s an element of old English folk music here (folk melodies and harmonies, nostalgic fiddle lines), intermingled with decidedly newer technology and production. That sort of thing has been done before, of course, and will be done again, but I’ve not yet found anything to not like about this album. I’m just going to go with it. It’s good rainy day music. Nothing stands out as particularly mind-blowing or provocative, but the whole thing is well done. I may listen to it again, or I may forget about it, to be completely honest. But it’s notable enough that this first listen has been enjoyable. Moray has a lovely angelic falsetto, but he doesn’t overuse it by lingering there long. His lower register brings to mind that of Chris Thile, which is not a bad comparison under which to fall at all. Something tells me this could go in the background of one of those Twilight movies, not that I’ve ever seen any of them.
STONE RIVER BOYS – LOVE ON THE DIAL
And so this hours-long self-assignment of twelve new albums comes to an end with some straight-up twang. Maybe the whole thing was ruined by that Deer Tick album, Jen Olive, and Stuart Moxham. This is good enough that I’ll give it another whirl later. I didn’t expect much from that guitar solo on “Bluebonnet Blue,” but it was pretty good. Skipping ahead to “Think I’m Gonna Make It,” then on to the title track, it’s clear these guys have some kind of chemistry. The progressions aren’t entirely intuitive, but seem to work for them. The lyrics aren’t entirely imaginative, and the melodies are more like non-melodies. Still, there’s a certain charm that’ll probably connect with some people somewhere. Just not doing it for me right now. I’ll give them a second chance some other day.