This is what the work used to be (part three)
To a chorus of Malvina Reynolds’ “Little Boxes,” reprising the notion of “Weeds” but not the weed of the series.
Once again, I seek to clean. My stacks of unlistened-to-CDs go back three years, to right about when the magazine shut down, and I began to shut down my career as a music critic. We are building a smaller, greener house, and it is incumbent upon me to winnow down the stacks. To make them disappear, one way or another. The problem I have with all these CDs I’ve never played is that I don’t know if I don’t care. I mean, I go through them and toss the ones I KNOW I don’t want to listen to (Jason Mraz was easy). But the rest…so I’m picking one of two banker boxes and having a go, gifted with an unexpected hour or two this afternoon. As always, I’m picking ten at random (more or less at random, anyhow), and writing as I listen and multitask. That all of these came out a while back seems immaterial to me in the new era of digital impermanence.
(1) Jill Hennessy, Ghost In My Head. The star [sic] of the TV show, “Crossing Jordan,” and a “Law & Order” veteran. Best I recall the press kit from 2009, she started out to be a singer, ended up a TV star. The opening song, “10,000 Miles” is not an homage to John Denver, and she wrote it. As she wrote all of ’em. She has a full voice, rich enough and disciplined enough. Alto, maybe (I never did sort out the vocal ranges to any degree of confidence. Them as can’t do…) I want her to sound like Joan Armatrading, but she doesn’t, and this opening song runs on way too long. Easily fixed, that last part. “4 Small Hands” rocks in a midtempo kind of way. Title track is third, at which point my curiosity is sated. What I think is that Ms. Hennessy can sing, but she needs to find or write better songs because nothing I’ve heard makes me want to listen.
(2) Drew Nelson, Dusty Road To Beulah Land. Picked because I like the cover, photos credited to Wojtek Dabrowski. Ex-art director’s prerogative. I always think it’s a mistake to give a listener 25-plus seconds of instrumental before the singer’s voice kicks into the opening track. Fine later on, but you’ve got maybe 30 seconds to win me over, and I’ve yet to hear a guitar figure that does that job. I can’t find a single familiar name on the jacket, which is sort of unusual. He has a voice lightly flavored by whiskey, recorded up in Grand Rapids, MI, and is old enough (from his photo) to have chosen that for proximity to home. Too many words (pernicious influence of that Dylan character, seems to me). “Waiting for the Sun” swings a bit more, and I like the tonic offered by Rachael Davis’s backing vocals, though she’s just on that one track. I don’t know Nelson’s story (I know, I know, I could look, but I’m cheating enough by writing anything when I’m meant to be cleaning), but he seems a tweener to me. Almost. Not quite, but almost. The kind of guy who just might pop a song that sticks with me often enough to keep me auditioning his albums. Or not. He’d do better if I were listening on a long, late-night drive.
(3) Foreign Cinema, Non-Synchronous Sound EP. Black & white cover that is either arty or low budget and can’t decide. I’m thinking that Dave Han and Natalia Silva, who co-wrote these four songs probably like certain kinds of keyboard-driven early ’80s music more than I did. Now, if Ms. Silva turns up with an Annie Lennox voice on the next track, I’ll stick around. Otherwise…oh, that fake drum sound. Ouch. And “Ice Machine” begins with a sound borrowed from Gary Numan, which would be a good thing if it had his command of melody and dynamics. OK, it was a mistake. So it goes.
(4) James Luther Dickinson, Dinosaurs Run In Circles. An album I will keep purely out of respect, unless it really was awful, and I knew it wouldn’t be. And it’s not. With a short couple paragraphs by way of liner notes from Nick Tosches. Glad and greasy and I’ll play it for real later. But, man, what a voice. It sounds like I think Dr. John should sound like, only he doesn’t.
(5) Jennie DeVoe, Strange Sunshine. She has a peroxide ‘fro and blue eyes and a ring in her nose. Produced and mixed and played on by John Parish, which I take to mean PJ Harvey’s collaborator. She sings with a husky, laconic, beanik beat that reminds me of Thao Nguyen, who I’ve been thinking about since we came through Williamsburg, though Ms. DeVoe enunciates a little clearer, and seems a little less serious. I wish the title track had a little more…something. Oh. Ricky Lee Jones, that’s what “Map of the World” reminds me of. Of course it does. (Thao never reminds me of Jones.) Ah! There it is. A blues, on which she lets her restraint go. “No Damn Man.” OK. Yeah, that’s the good stuff. Tense and slow and filled with anguish and resolve, a little gospel, a little blues, a little jazz, and a first-rate song, even if it blazes no new territory. Doesn’t have to, stands on its own. As does the next one, “Exit 229,” now that the volume’s way up. See, this is why I go through these stacks, this blind hope.
(6) Sam & Ruby, The Here And The Now. A sequencing mistake. I think I like Ruby Amanfu’s voice (and that I don’t like Sam Brooker’s), but it pales after Ms. DeVoe. The production is crisp and careful and precise. Sleek. Lots of what my friend Erik always called ear candy. Too much of it for me. Yeah, I don’t like his voice, one of those high wheezy things that sometimes does well on radio. Fair enough. Probably tolerably good, but not for me.
(7) Drivin’ N’ Cryin’, Great American Bubble Factory. I still think Whiskey Tames The Lion is one of the weirdest, most conflicted albums I’ve ever heard, and still regret not having seen DNC as anything more than a supporting act (which is to say, lost in an arena with half the PA) when they were young and muscular. Kevn Kinney…all the talent in the world, and a voice that Kid Rock would kill to have. Classic rock, this opening “Detroit City” is. Tom Gillam and I periodically kvetch to each other that nobody playing rock in its classic idiom can make it to the radio anymore. Oh, well. Another CD to set aside and hope to have time to ingest in full later on.
(8) Michelle Malone, Debris. Seems like I kept an early Michelle Malone album for years, linked in this blog by the fact that memory argues she and DNC shared a publicist for a time. It has to bug Ms. Malone late at night that Susan Tedeschi and Melissa Etheridge have made tolerably good fortunes with their talents, and she’s not far enough behind to notice the difference. That said, this one is more forceful (at least in its opening track, “Feather In A Hurricane”), more blunt and direct than I can remember having heard in subsequent albums. Blues rock. Her problem, now, is that I think Romi Mayes does it better, writes better songs, is less formulaic in her blues nods. Had we still a magazine, she’d finally get a Town & Country out of this album, partly just for the stubbornness of her career. And for the line, “Sunday morning in my Saturday dress…I feel beautiful in yesterday’s make-up.” Yeah, she and Romi’d make a fine double-bill. I can’t decide whether to play this in full or not. Wish the CD player in my truck hadn’t quit working.
(9) Now, here’s a question. Who the hell are THe BAcksliders, whose album is called Thank You? Three Bonners (Kim, who is female, sings), and a drummer. They would appear to have nothing to do with the much-beloved Backsliders out of Raleigh, NC, and rather more to do with the Runaways or the Ramones or some such power-punk outfit. First song clocks in under two minutes. OK…second song, “Soul,” opens with a riff stolen pretty straight from the Sonics. One more track, “Maybelline Don’t.” Oh. A ballad. Not a good sign. Not Sue Saad & the Next, that’s for sure. (See where my mind veers? I actually went to see Sue Saad open for the Boomtown Rats, and left three songs into the Rats’ set.) Skip to the Little Richard cover, “Keep A Knockin’.” I actually like the male Bonner’s vocals (doesn’t say which one, they both sing) better. But the cover is just fast. Probably a kick live, though. I can’t think of a reason to keep it, but I might find somebody to give this one to.
(10) OK, OK, as long as we’re in that mood…Joe Swank has given me two copies of Joe Swank & The Zen Pirates, Hank Williams Died For My Sins. He’s a nice guy, does radio promotion for Bloodshot. And his cover comes from Kiss (“Strutter,” at the end of the album, and I haven’t gotten there yet). So, for the moment, we have Mr. Swank and his piano, and some needle noise. Hmm. The rock kicks in second track, “Fool For You,” his snarl reminding me of Mr. Earle (the senior). Maybe a little Bottle Rockets on the side. Thing is, it’s actually good. I didn’t expect that, and I know Mr. Swank reads these things, so I put it off in part because I knew I’d have to say something and I don’t wish to be unkind at this stage of my so-called career. He writes better than he sings, and he sings well enough. I could get well and truly drunk listening to this in the wrong bar, except I don’t do that anymore. But, y’know…