Reviews of Todd Snider, Neko Case, Andrew Bird, and Justin Townes Earle
I noticed the Best of 2009 list didn’t have reviews for these artists. These are reviews from earlier this year that appeared in another publication. My blog is at Semi-Regular Raves ‘n’ Rants.
“The Excitement Plan”
With his latest, Todd Snider takes a big step up into the rare circle of songwriters who can match Randy Newman’s self effacing wit and shrewd social commentary. From the opener, about finding a four-leaf clover (with one leaf missing), “That’s close enough for me,” he sings deadpan. “Must be my lucky day,” he cracks wise.
On “Greencastle Blues,” he opens with just vocals and piano, a nod to Newman. The song was inspired by Snider getting busted for smoking pot a couple of years ago. “Some of this trouble just finds me, most of this trouble I earn,” he sings over pedal steel guitar. “So how do you know when it’s too late, how do you know when it’s too late to learn?”
Most of the tunes are about alright guys down on their luck, unable to figure out what went wrong or how to make it right. “Bring ‘Em Home,” fueled by Snider’s harmonica and Jim Keltner’s drumming, is about a guy who enlisted hoping for something better and now just wants to come home. “Unorganized Crime” tells the story of a hit man so incompetent yet so proud that he wants to turn himself in so everybody knows what he did. For baseball fans, Snider gives us “America’s Favorite Pastime,” the story of Dock Ellis’s LSD-laced pitching performance in 1970. For variety, Snider duets with Loretta Lynn on “Don’t Tempt Me,” a bit of barrelhouse country. The lone cover, Robert Earl Keen’s “Corpus Christi Bay,” fits right in. “If I could live my life all over, it wouldn’t matter anyway,” Snider sings
Don Was produced and Greg Leisz lends his considerable picking skills, but the production is wisely low-key, putting Snider’s vocals front and center, gently wrapped in just a little bunting. He bids us farewell with “Good Fortune,” a simple wish, but by that time, we’ve had the good fortune to settle in with Snider and his characters for 40 minutes of good, bad times.
Case has traversed a long journey from her twanging, alt country beginnings. With her most anticipated disc (after a New York Times Magazine feature), she makes the transition to pop rock chanteuse. The sublime first three cuts on “Cyclone” sound more like Kirsty MacColl than Patsy Cline. The opener, “This Tornado Loves You” rushes along, changing directions, much like the rest of the disc that follows. Case may be a control freak, but she’s allowed herself to explore without lyrical or musical boundaries. “People Got a Lotta Nerve” is one damn catchy pop song told from the perspective of a man-eating predators like killer whales.
Nothing is constant on this disc, especially not the music, which morphs and changes not only from song to song, but also within songs, something that can be jarring. Her voice is the continuing attraction; it’s powerful, hard, and alluring, an irresistible force. Musically, the disc is all over the map, featuring guests from Calexico, Los Lobos, and The New Pornographers as well as Garth Hudson, Kelly Hogan, Sarah Harmer and M. Ward. A cover of Sparks’ “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth” arranges cellos and group harmonies. “Vengeance Is Sleeping,” a classic Case torcher, rides along finger-picked guitar. A “piano orchestra” echoes through a respectful cover of Harry Nilsson’s “Don’t Forget Me.” One of the disc’s best cuts, the propulsive apocalyptic pop rocker “Red Tide,” is saved for last (before 30 minutes of chirping crickets and nature noise).
A treacly music box punctuates the center of the title cut, either jarring or charming, depending on your taste. But it seems that’s what Case aims for on this disc. She’s going to defy any expectations threatening to enclose her at this point. Either you give yourself to the cyclone and fly along or you’re thrown to the ground, left behind.
Bird may have earned a reputation as a hyper-literate songwriter who makes folk pop music with his virtuoso violin work over the previous four albums, but on his enchanting latest, it’s his whistling, hand claps, and easy melodies that step to center stage. “Oh No” opens the album with strings, whistling, and Bird’s inviting crooning, setting the stage for the catchy, easygoing listen to follow.
Not that Bird is unambitious. Lyrical turns include words like radiolarians, Souverian, plecostomus, Lisboans, and onesies. Songs like “Fitz and Dizzyspells” and “Effigy” showcase his violin playing, but also offer modern roots twists. The environment, lost youth, and war are explored. But even if you don’t get lost in the wordplay, the music –the sound — of “Noble Beast” keeps you engaged. This beast is a charming record deep enough to reward repeated listenings.
Justin Townes Earle
“Midnight at the Movies”
Justin Townes Earle’s second album is a remarkably mature, accomplished disc that grows more absorbing with every listen. He’s clearly completed a master’s degree in the American songbook stretching from Tin Pan Alley to Nashville’s Bluebird Cafe to The sound is both modern and throwback. And Earle is ambitious throughout. There’s the stylistic range over 12 tunes and 32 minutes, but also the lyrical depth, a skill for storytelling.
“What I Mean to You” and “Poor Fool” offer old pedal steel guitar and a bit of Texas honky tonk swing behind Earle’s breezy, confident vocals that evoke early Leon Redbone. The lush “Midnight at the Movies” is a story song worthy of his genes that could easily fit on a Randy Newman album. “They Killed John Henry” tackles public domain folk and could have come straight off Springsteen’s “Seeger Sessions” beginning with the big man’s funeral and imagining the story thereafter. “Walk Out” is a rag you might hear in New Orleans or Austin. “Someday I’ll Be Forgiven for This” gives Earle a shot at a quiet ballad and the vocal likeness to his old man is chilling. So is the song, as sad as kiss-off — with a lyrical twist — as you’ll hear. The lone cover of The Replacements “Can’t Hardly Wait” fits perfectly thanks to the mandolin-fueled arrangement.
The disc’s best cut, “Mama’s Eyes” makes a nod to Earle’s famous father. “I am my father’s son,” he sings, “never know when to shut up…We don’t see eye to eye, but I’ll be the first to admit I never tried.” But he’s not riding on coattails here. “Midnight” is charming, captivating, and worth listening until sunrise.