Lee’s Listening Stack: A Dozen Reviews to End the Old Year and Start a New One Right
Hurray for the Riff Raff
Small Town Heroes
To most of the world, Hurray for the Riff Raff will appear to be newcomers, although their songs harken back to early Appalachian tradition. Part of the reason for that lack of awareness can be traced to the fact that their earlier albums were given only European release, and while an eponymous endeavour and the excellent Look Out Mama might have struck a lively connection had they come out in the States, it was only the good sense of those in charge of England’s Loose Records label that saved them from obscurity at all. Thankfully then, ATO Records has caught on and opted to give their new album, Small Town Heroes an American bow, feeding the frenzy that’s already been building overseas. At the heart of the band is Alynda Lee Segarra, a singer of Puerto Rican descent whose affinity for bluegrass and backwoods melodies makes this band true traditionalists in the most genuine sense of the word. Fiddles and folk music are the predominant factors here, with songs such as “Good Time Blues (An Outlaw’s Lament),” “The New SF Bay Blues” and “Levon’s Dream” effectively echoing the music that obviously inspires them. Thos e in searrch f the real deal need look no further. (www.atorecords.com)
No 1 Northern
She Comes Into the Room
It’s been a busy year for Canada’s Skydiggers, what with four new albums released in 2013 alone, sets comprised of both new material and retrospective efforts that provide tantalising glimpses of their seminal career. Sadly, the Skydiggers remain an unknown entity south of the border with our northern neighbor, but credit the band with providing these primers that makes getting up to speed relatively easy. She Comes Into the Room is an ideal place to start, thanks to a selection of earlier songs re-recorded in the company of various pals and fellow travelers. Rootsy yet rollicking, these tracks form an essential offering that will hopefully encourage newcomers to go back and check out their sources. Likewise, No 1 Northern offers a current compendium, and even after hearing the first two songs alone — “Bitter Beauty” and “Burning Bridges” — they’re capable of convincing the novice that a quick catch-up is in order. A rugged bunch with a hook-savvy skill set, they’re similar in stance to Blue Rodeo and the Tragically Hip, both bands that make our Canadian friends justifiably proud. Now it’s time the rest of the continent caught on as well. (www.latentrecordings.com)
The Del Shannon Tribute Songwriter Volume I
To many, Del Shannon was simply a footnote to rock’s golden age in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. Known mainly for his one major hit “Runaway” and the song he contributed to Peter and Gordon, “I Go to Pieces,” he never achieved the notoriety of, say, Buddy Holly, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Eddie Cochran or the more notable innovators and insurgents that made their mark prior to the British Invasion. Nevertheless, he was tremendously influential, especially among the bands that followed, and in retrospect, Shannon’s work is seeing renewed interest overall. Consequently, this tribute ought to garner attention, if for no other reason than the notable names — Marshall Crenshaw, Frank Black, Don Dixon, Marti Jones, the Rubinoos, Carla Olson, Peter Case, and the Britannicas, among them — that have chosen to take part. While most of the songs won’t be familiar to anyone but the most fervent devotee, the participants’ earnest intentions make every one a true delight. And even though Randy Bachman’s muddled take on “Runaway” obscures the most obvious entry, there is more than enough here to give those heretofore unaware a perfect primer. A big deal for Del, it’s essential overall.(www.rockbeatrecords.com)
It seems odd that a band — or in this case, a sole auteur — would opt for an inauspicious handle like Humble Tripe. After all, it almost appears to demean the majesty of the music it spawns. Indeed, this second album from Shawn Luby and his talented collaborator is a joy to behold, a collection of lovely, sublime melodies that shimmer and sparkle with a radiance all their own. On the one hand, it could be classified as folk, but that would belie that the elusive and ethereal beauty that fills these songs and makes the album as a whole so distinct and so alluring. Tracks like “November,” “Stones” and “Trouble” are obvious standouts, but in truth, there’s not a single selection here that doesn’t purvey a sense of daring, charm and wonder. Luby is obviously some sort of reclusive wunderkind — much like Brian Wilson in a very practical sense — and at this point it’s unsure as to whether his talents will reach the world at large. After all, an independent project that flies well below the radar is hardly a sure bet to make it to the minions. Have faith then that talent and perseverance pay off and Humble Tripe gets the wider recognition that The Giving so definitely demands.
Danny & The Champions of the World
For several years now, Danny George Wilson has been one of the U.K.’s foremost proponents of classic Americana in the Southern California singer/songwriter tradition. That’s been the case ever since his first band of note, Grand Drive, made it’s debut in the late ‘90s. Since then, Wilson has morphed into making music on his own before finding sturdy footing under the guise of Danny & The Champions of the World. Although such a high-minded handle seems a bit overblown, especially considering the easy, breezy sound their prone to procure, it has become a symbol of enduring quality, given the group’s smooth country rock approach. The band’s superb new album, Stay True, lives up to its title in a multitude of ways, not the least of which is its adherence to a familiar classic rock sound that approximates what might result if Nils Lofgren suddenly found himself singing the early Van Morrison songbook. There’s more than a hint of nostalgia wafting through these melodies, sounds that are simple, unaffected and aimed to please. Indeed, the ‘70s sensibility that finds its way into such songs as “(Never Stop Building) That Old Rocket Ship,” “Other Days” and “Stay True” bears the same sepia-tinted tones one might find in a typical top forty chart entry circa the early ‘70s. It’s a journeyman’s delight, with additional hints of Mellencamp, Springsteen and Willie Nile, though more on the rural side than any urbanised version. Clearly, Stay True is what Danny and his pedigree pals do best.
Tales From the Jackson Bridge
I can see it now…critics and opinion makers all trying to pin some kind of label on Harpeth Rising. And yet, given this talented young outfit’s dazzling ability to convincingly switch genres at will makes such descriptions an exercise in futility. There’s a certain theatricality in their muse and their music — especially as far as their new album Tales From the Jackson Bridge is concerned. Simply listen to the rousing refrains of “Day After Day” and “Four Days More” if any proof is needed .More than that however, they seem to come by their upfront showmanship quite naturally; the quartet’s ability to switch from bluegrass to an equally exhilarating ragtime flourish in the space of a couple of tracks suggests no small hint of Vaudevillian ambition. Clearly this band is consumed with talent, from Jordana Greenberg’s tender virtuoso violin solos to the three front women’s Andrews Sisters-like harmonies and the off-handed whistling that helps enliven “You Won’t Hear It From Me.” In fact, it’s all too easy to envision top hats and canes flying with a frenzy. And whether it’s their inherent folk finesse — as evidenced on “The Sparrow,” “Ghost Factory” or a searing instrumental version of “House of the Rising Sun” — or the dapper cheeriness, confidence and sheer affability that informs practically everything else, Harpeth Rising play their cards with class and conviction. Tales guarantees a happy ending.
The Sharp Things
The Truth Is Like the Sun
By day, Perry Serpa is a publicist, and in my estimation, one of the best in the biz. By night — and presumably whenever else he has free time — he’s the singer and chief musical mastermind behind The Sharp Thing, an artful pop rock combo with a knack for tuneful melodies and more than the occasional flourish. Perry’s got a voice that’s quite capable of hitting an upper register, often bringing to mind Jon Anderson at the helm of Yes, and some impressive keyboard skills, and when taken in tandem with the band’s superior songs — “Can’t Get Started,” “Light In My Harbor,” “Flesh and Bone” and “The Last Hymn” among many — he and the band render an exquisite sound full of breathy enthusiasm and a grandeur that’s really quite impressive. True to their moniker, The Sharp Things employ an impressive arsenal of instrumentation — synths, flugelhorns, trumpets, glockenspiel, French horn — and all matter of other accoutrements to make their music sound fresh and dynamic on initial encounter. In the hands of others, these arrangements might sound twee or precious, but given the band’s fastidious ability to turn the tempo, that’s never the case. The rousing “Playing the Benelox,” the one song which finds them really letting go, is a perfect example of their ability to seize spontaneity; the run through ends in a fit of self-effacing laughter. Nevertheless, The Truth Is Like The Sun is good for more than a giggle. It could be called the Sgt. Pepper of the indie set.
One that got lost in the shuffle somehow, Check Engine, Lonesome Brothers’ latest, is a gem nevertheless, an album well worth any effort at rediscovery. The trio, which consists of bassist Ray Mason, guitarist Jim Armenti and drummer Tom Shea, makes musicthat harkens back to the carefree highway days of the early ‘70s, and so it’s no surprise to hear hints of the Dead on “Wild and Wayward,” the Band on “the Last Great Voice” or the New Riders with “Morning Moon.” Their music bears little affectation and consequently glad-handed, good timey, tongue-in-cheek parables like “Cigarettes and Cell Phones” and “Must Be in Trouble” offer the sense that they don’t take themselves too seriously even as they’re making a pertinent point on the foibles and pitfalls of modern life. Mostly though, it’s easy to imagine them gathering on the front porch, singing up a storm in down home fashion. With their jaunty, good time music and affability aplenty, it’s a fair bet that the Lonesome Brothers won’t be lonely for long.
I’m In a Mood
Scot Sax has changed his tune, both literally and figuratively. Once an astute power pop mastermind, both solo and at the helm of the remarkable Wanderlust, he’s now chosen to go the troubadour route, abandoning the chime and jangle for more barebones instrumentation. I’m In A Mood is a fine example of an artist stripping his sound down to the basics, doing away with all but minimal embellishment and singing from the soul. Opening track “Hate To Love” sounds like something Steve Forbert would offer only too gladly, with a hint of both Dylan nad the Lumineers tossed in for good measure. He still rocks, mind you — the pointedly tart “Reflection in the Glass” offers ample proof of that — but for the most part, subtlety is key to his new MO. Taking a bluesy tone, songs like “Get Your Order Right” and “Istanbul” possess a soulful yet spicy inflection that meshes well with Sax’s sinewy delivery. And when he hints at a croon on the title track, his affability becomes all the more evident. His is music clearly intended to get everyone in the ideal mood, and keep them there as well.
Bands that consist entirely of siblings to tend have great track records. The evidence is everywhere, from the phenomenon caused by the Band Perry and stretching all the back to the Andrews Sisters. The natural harmonies and affinity shared between the individuals involved all but guarantees a cohesive whole. So it is with Von Grey, a sisterly foursome whose celebratory sound echoes all those brother and sister groups that came before — a list that also include the Beach Boys FYI — and who sing so well in sync that there’s no hole left unfilled between the various and components that go into the mix. Awakening may be only six songs long, but it offers enough evidence to suggest that the Von Greys have a multihued future ahead of them. The sparkling four part harmonies that illuminate a song like “Deliverance” offers proof aplenty, without coming across as either precious or puerile, . Add some virtuoso violin, effusive melodies and the effervescent attitude so clearly conveyed throughout, and Von Grey’s winning proposition becomes all too evident. Awakening is a wonderful introduction indeed.
Stay Here With Me
As if the title itself wasn’t entreating enough, Jesse Terry’s third album makes a convincing case that attention is long overdue. Ably produced, engineered and mixed by Neilson Hubbard, a man whose every effort yields something on the order of transcendence, Stay Here With Me is the kind of album that defines what the ablest singer/songwriter ought to aim for, that is, a set of songs tendered with heartfelt emotion and powered by earnest ambition. The melodies ring with instant accessibility and a clear connection, conveying a brilliance and clarity that most veteran artists still strive for. Endearing and engaging, songs such as “Stay Here With Me,” “Feel That Way Again,” “Marina” and “Deeper Wells” reflect Terry’s obvious MO, a sweet sentimentality that lacks any hint of pretence or posturing. With a little bit of luck and the right amount of promotion, Terry could clearly become a major star; suffice it to say he could wipe the floor with most of those placid “American Idol” finalists hands down. Not to worry. He’s reaped plenty of accolades himself, among them, a grand prize win from The John Lennon Songwriting Contest and substantial standing with The NSAI/CMT Song Contest, and The We Are Listening Singer/Songwriter Awards. Unforced and yet clearly refined, these are songs that could only come from someone who’s mastered his skill set. The result? A wonderful album indeed.
Good, Pinset and Keelor
Down and Out in Upalong
Although it’s fairly certain you won’t be able to tell by the title, Down and Out in Upalong is an unlikely collaboration, but a most satisfying one regardless. Travis Good of the Sadies and Greg Keelor of Blue Rodeo are mainstays of their respective bands and widely hailed musical heroes in their native Canada. Poet Gordon Pinsent is apparently a superstar in northern literary circles, which is what makes this album an unusual collusion of two worlds. Disc one of this two CD set is the most immediately satisfying, as Keelor and Good combine their talents for a mix of upbeat, back porch bluegrass and several tender ballads. The most satisfying of the latter — “Upalong,” “Shadows in the Sun,” “Peter Easton,” “Let Go” and “Old Part of Town” — offer testimony to their folk finesse and further their individual reputations as far as instantly engaging melodies are concerned, thereby making the album worth the price of admission on that basis alone. Disc two is, well, a bit more of a learning curve. Pinsnet’s gritty voice lends itself well to these hardbitten tales and the supple backing from Good and Keelor provide an appropriate air of weathered resilience. It’s fairly certain that return visits will center on the first CD, but the entire package is rewarding regardless. Also, take time to read the liner notes where Keelor describes how this remarkable project came about.