Making my way through the stacks
The other day, Grant posted a blog here talking about what the job used to be, back when there was a magazine and piles upon stacks of review copy CDs taking up every spare square of flat surface. Since he’s still getting those CDs in the mail, he pulled a few out of stacks and shared some first impressions with us. Seemed like an entertaining little exercise, so I’m going to be a copycat and post my own random list of first impressions.
I’ll disclaim this by saying that, almost immediately before deciding to perform this exercise, I got rid of stacks upon stacks of review copies I knew I’d never in a million years have time to listen to. It’s one of the great guilt trips of this job. After all, I landed here after spending the first 30 years making music. I’ve been on the other side of the desk, so it hurts me a little bit to get CDs I know I’ll never listen to. I simply don’t have time to pay attention to everything that’s sent my way. I have a method for culling through the unsoliciteds. Those that get through that somewhat nonsensical (makes sense to me, though) sieve – providing I don’t already know a thing about the artist – get a song or two to convince me to listen to more. If the first or second song hooks me, I’ll skip to track six. For some reason, folks have a habit of sticking their finest work dead in the center of the album.
So, with that all laid out for you, I grabbed the first ten discs off the top of the stack and will hereby share my first impressions:
Paula Sinclair – Steady Girl (self)
She’s got Tony Furtado playing banjo, slide guitar, and dojo on there, so I figured it was worth a listen. There’s a vague Rosanne Cash-ish thing going on here, and she covers Steve Earle’s “Fearless Heart,” which I immediately skip to. It’s all okay, but it’s not connecting with me. If I walked into a bar and saw this band, I’d stop and listen, but this album isn’t doing it. If I want to hear something like Rosanne Cash, I’ll listen to Rosanne. Giving it the sixth track test. The song is called “Even if I Fall” and it’s much better than the first couple of tunes, but still too…something. Clean, slick, smooth, polished. Her voice is too real for all the tightness in here; the instrumentation doesn’t match it. Maybe she’ll catch me on her next record.
Guy Mendilow Band – Skyland (Earthen Groove)
Well, that jaw harp is prominent. This is what they call “world music,” whatever that means. The back of the CD box tells me there will be five languages played on nineteen instruments. I think this is supposed to be an asset, but I’m not sold. Are they going to play nineteen instruments as a gimmick, or because the songs call for those instruments? So far, it’s worldy, too heavy on the jaw harp, and full of weird twirly lyrics. Track three is called “Salaam” and I like it better than the English language tracks, maybe because I don’t know what they’re singing. Again, I think this record is just fine. The band should be able to make a living at what they do, but I probably won’t listen to it again. Not my thing. The fiddle’s nice, though, as are the odd percussion instruments.
The Unit Breed – Always Distance the Lonely (self)
If you Google me, I think it’s pretty easy to tell what kind of music I write about. Even the image results indicate I’m an Americana/folk/roots gal (the Google search I just performed showed me talking to someone at the EMP conference, a photo I took of Langhorne Slim, one of Jeff Tweedy, a cover of a Son Volt album, and a beatup pickup truck). None of this indicates I have any knowledge or appreciation of “psychadelic prog-rock.” I don’t even know what that phrase means. Here I am typing this paragraph, and I have no idea how many songs have gone by because this is the scariest, weirdest, trippiest shit I have ever heard in my life. I have never taken LSD, but would guess this is the kind of record that you don’t want to put on when you’re on an acid trip. I don’t know what the hell is happening here sonically, nor do I have any idea how to explain it. I can’t even figure out if I would love it or hate it, if this were the kind of music I was into. Next.
Bill Noonan – The Man That I Can’t Be (Catawba City Records)
Nice, accessible rockabilly. The guitar is filthy distorted on track two (I like it) and his vocals are set back (not good). I’m no engineer, but something about the mix is distracting me from the music. It’s not fair to the songs or the songwriter. So many variables have to line up to make a great record. I won’t hold this against Bill Noonan, but I don’t want to keep this disc in heavy rotation. Next.
Blue Mother Tupelo – Heaven and Earth (self)
I’ve been holding onto this one for a while – it came out last year. And, since last year I’ve been thinking sooner or later this disc would find its way onto my speakers where I would finally have time to give it its due. Here we go. This is more my speed. I believe this is a husband-wife duo, and the female half – Micol Davis – has a voice that’s remarkably similar to Sheryl Crow’s. Gritty atmospheric roots rock, heavy – sometimes too much so – on the pedal steel, but the first song takes too long and the melody doesn’t really go anywhere. Sixth track test: it’s called “Wandering Soul.” Well, I’ve stopped writing and judging it long enough to actually listen to the song, which says something. The melody is familiar, but I can’t figure out where I’ve heard it before. Nice harmonies. The pedal steel is maybe too much – they could’ve pulled this one off with just acoustic guitar and piano, two voices. But I like where it goes. Sixth track test duly passed. I’ll listen to this one more later.
Raina Rose – When May Came (self)
I know Raina – we have friends in common and have met a few times along the way, in dark bars and at festivals or whatever. Folk alliance. She’s an excellent performer – she should be. She’s clocked more hours on the road, on stages, than pretty much any other singer-songwriter on the circuit. I know all this going in, so there’s a bar set. She’s got a nice voice that can tackle a fairly wide register. Guitar’s just strumming, predictably. Nothing fancy. These songs don’t need much, and she doesn’t give them more than they need. Some more harmonies here and there would be nice on “Your Neighbor’s Trampoline.” There are some, but they’re tentative and distant, and my ears want a grumbling man voice to anchor behind her melody. Just a little something low off of which her light vocals can bounce like a trampoline. See what I do? I try to rewrite the song. It’s not fair. But I like where she goes on her own. Sixth track test: tune is called “Nashville.” Funny. It’s all about playing music in Nashville below the bar of Nashville’s Nashvillianness. “It’s not about art, but about industry / this town’s got me breaking all my nails.” Nice banjo back there. Yeah, I’ll listen to this again. Next.
Delta Moon – Hell Bound Train (Red Parlour)
I like the coverart. I’m a little shallow like that. I also like the dirty guitars and driving drums, the harmonies and gritty-voiced singer. Sounds like he’s had a few shots of whiskey and a handful of cigarettes. “You’ll never get to heaven on a hellbound train” seems pretty obvious. Guitar solo is good – stops and starts at all the right times, in all the right places. Track six: “You Got to Move.” Oh yeah. Dirty old blues gospel tune, stripped bare and punctuated only by a hypnotized, slow tambourine. The slide guitar solo is right on the mark. This is good stuff. Putting it in the short stack for more later. Am I on a roll now?
Daphne Willis – What to Say (Vanguard)
Funny. When I pop this in, my computer reads it as being from Barnes & Noble, which is exactly what it sounds like. The sonic equivalent of a feature book table and a Starbucks latte. If that makes sense. It’s clean and accessible, well-produced. There’s money behind this record, is my first thought. Not necessarily a bad thing, but in this case it sounds like any number of other artists whose albums might be pushed from the register at a Barnes & Noble store. Not sure who wrote the songs, but they do all the right things songs must do to be palatable to the widest audience possible. Who’s that girl? Colbie Callait? Yeah, like that. Songs like sugar in your tea, which is to say unnecessary unless that’s what you’re into.
Great American Taxi – Reckless Habits (self…I think)
Yes. See how that works? Right away. I don’t need a sixth track test to know I’ll listen to this whole album sometime, but I’ll do it. It’s the title track and it kicks off with a shout to Gram Parsons. It’s kind of aurally thin, but not enough to distract from whatever’s good about it. It’s one of those “this is how country I am” tracks, which always makes me giggle a bit. Still, yes. I want to sit here and listen to the whole album, but I pulled ten out of the stack and the next one is the new Rocky Votolato. So, moving on…
Rocky Votolato – True Devotion (Barsuk)
Yes. Again, yes. I’ve come to understand that Barsuk is one of those labels which consistently releases good music. I can generally count on their taste, and I can generally count on the songwriting of Rocky Votolato. He does a splendid job of building the song in the least obvious ways. The opening track doesn’t get louder, it just gets bigger. But it doesn’t cross the line toward “too big.” Song two makes me think of Jeremy Enigk’s Return of the Frog King, but not in a derivative way (though I’d be surprised if Rocky Votolato wasn’t, at some point, a SDRE fan). This record makes me not want to stop at the one or two song test, nor do I want to skip to the sixth track. I just want to sit here and listen to it in full right now, and I think I will.
What have you got?