This is what the work used to be (part two)
Another futile attempt to multitask. Which, in this case, means that I’m trying both to clean my office and to listen to one of the stacks of CDs littering it everywhere. This is also a kind of self-reminder of what my work used to be, back when it was my job to listen to as much music as quickly as I possibly could.
The result is a series of quick partial reviews of whatever my hands grab off the floor. Written while moving heavy things and waiting for the guy from Lowe’s to come install ovens so we can bake something for the first time since Christmas. So I’m either unusually crabby or giddy with excitement today, and we’ll all find out which at the same time.
(1) Summertown Road, self-titled (Rounder). Quite by accident, this is even timely. The street date for this debut was actually yesterday (March 23). And the band comes from right down my road, in Ashland, Kentucky. Which explains the name, cobbled from a Marty Raybon song. I’m typing from the press release which is so fresh I haven’t even tossed it, and can thus tell you that the band consists of Joe Hicks (banjo, dobro), Bo Isaacs (vocals, guitar), Jonathan Rigsby (vocals, fiddle, mandolin, clawhammer banjo) and Randy Thomas (bass). They are veteran bluegrass pickers with credits that go back a fair bit, so let’s stipulate that, at a minimum, they’re competent. And most of the material comes from their own pens, which is at least in theory a good sign. But after four songs, I’m still waiting for something magical to happen. They’re a solid band, no question, and I’d be happy to sit in front of their stage at a festival. But they’re not…special, and so, in my new purging mode, I’ll not keep the CD.
(2) Nancy K. Dillon, Roses Guide to Time Travel (Rose Rock). Okie folk, if the one-sheet is to be believed, with a Seattle address. A pleasant enough voice, but the opening track (“All the Pretty America”) is both long (5:45) and slow-paced. And preachy, to my taste, though I’m probably sympathetic to its sentiment. The second track, “Last Town on the Line,” was a bit more jaunty, but by the beginning of the fourth song, I’m pretty well convinced that Ms. Dillon offers a polished, poised kind of coffeeshop folk which isn’t my thing. Nothing wrong with it, but her voice doesn’t have anything in it to grab me, and neither do her lyrics.
(3) The Gary, Logan (Cabin Fever). OK. Rock, sort of. Emo-country, maybe, taking off somewhere from where Son Volt turned left. Maybe. Although where the country comes from…that’s probably my imagination. A penchant for hammering slightly askew guitar chords and shouting vocals. Unlike emo, there’s an actual melody, anyhow. Ah. The small print. They’re from Austin. They namecheck a lot of bands from my distant past, and, yes, the guitars owe a bit to Sonic Youth. The mix is cleaner than the sound suggests it might really be, but I’m stuck on the fact that the vocalist is mostly doing that husky shouting thing, but his voice doesn’t have (say) John Cale’s quality or any such, and so…
(4) The Sadies, Darker Circles (Yep Roc). Peter liked this band. So did Paul Cantin, best I remember. I trust both of them, at least in an abstract sense. Or respect their taste, maybe that’s the way to say it. (I should note that I’m writing about these in the order I found them on the floor. It should shock nobody who has read much of what I write that I don’t like most of what I hear. Or read. Or… ) The question, since I’ve never spent any serious time listening to The Sadies, is whether I can hear anything here without trying to give the band a break because two other critics who I respect like them. This can be a challenge. Post-punk rockin’ country, taking the tempo from punk and the twang from country. But…man, this is a dead thing I’m flogging…I’m waiting for a voice to hit me. To assert itself. For a line in a song to stand out. Maybe I’ll try this one in the truck, maybe it’ll grow on me, but…after two comparatively short songs I’m ready to move on.
(5) Hacienda, Big Red & Barbacoa (Alive). Not sure I’m sold on the name, given the modest prominence and sad end of the Hacienda Brothers. And, uh, copyediting, please. “Who’s Heart Are You Breaking” is the first song. Whose. Not Who Is. Three guys, last name of Villanueva (Jaime, Abraham, and Rene), and Dante Schwebel. They list an Everly Brothers cover, but have written their own song “Hound Dog,” which, of course, I skipped to. It has an oddly Beach Boys flavor to it, whereas the opening track has just a hint of Black Sabbath to the underlying guitar line. OK, I’ll skip to “You’re My Girl,” the Everlys cover. A distant reflection of the Blasters, maybe, except it’s too slow for that. Skipped to the third track, “I Keep Waiting.” More Beach Boys, sorta. More than sorta, in the harmonies. Can’t figure out what they’re after, but I don’t think they’ve found it yet.
(6) I want to like something. I want this to be good, whatever it is. It turns out to be Miller-Kelton, Goodbye Cindy (no label). But the disc won’t read. The Elizabeth Cook advance wouldn’t read on my CD player either, but would on the computer. I don’t know what that means, but Miller-Kelton aren’t somebody I know, and we’re not going to be acquainted thisaway.
It is maybe useful to note that when I did these blind listening sessions, I’d go through a shelf of 100 discs or so and find one worth talking about.
(7) OK. Cash Box Kings, I-94 Blues (Blue Bella). It plays, that’s a start. And it’s topical, opening with “Default Boogie.” They come from Chicago. What I don’t hear, again, is a voice that I’m drawn to. Nor do I hear an approach to the blues which is in any way new or innovative. It’s a masterful recreation, but that’s not the same thing as creation. Simply for the title I’ll skip to “Ain’t No Fun When the Rabbit Got the Gun.” But in my head it has to compete with Young Jesse’s “Rabbit on a Log,” and it doesn’t. From the heart, not the head, please.
(8) Please be good. Please. Megan Burtt, It Ain’t Love (no label). Nice package. The opening guitar work promises…something. But it’s sincere midtempo rock with a woman singing. Or maybe this is modern country? Maybe? There’s clearly money here. Some of it’s recorded in Hermosa Beach, CA, some of it in NYC, some in Austin, and the cover photos is from Denver. I dunno. I dunno why the record got made, what they believed in, what they were chasing. I think after all these years I should be able to hear that. And when I don’t, I figure it’s not there, and move on.
(9) Birdsong at Morning, Vigil (Blue Gentian). The back cover tells me this is their third album. The text is placed within an art nouveau border, and they cover King Crimson’s “Matte Kudasai.” Is this maybe prog rock, is that what they’re aiming for? I went through that phase, long ago. Very serious musician stuff, British, somehow, like one of those bands who all lived in a caravan in the early 1970s and opened for Fairport Convention. I’ve probably got it all wrong.
(10) This isn’t any fun. I don’t mean to come across as such a crab. I’m not, really. Really. My last chance. The Whigs, In the Dark (ATO). A trio. They rock, in a fashion which suggests the possibility of energy. The vocals on the opening track, “Hundred/Million” remind me slightly of Wall of Voodoo, the same guitar figure swirling beneath all the other stuff and the multitracked voices. I can’t place the reference on “Black Lotus,” but it’s a persuasive New Wave rip, regardless. The vocals are too cool. I’m going to skip to “I Don’t Even Care About the One I Love” to see if it reminds me of Joy Division, even though I haven’t listened to them in ages. (Maybe I should.) Floppy hair stuff, but the bass at least has strings instead of keys.
I yield, having found nothing, but having cleared one small patch of floor. This is the point at which I wonder whether it’s worth the trouble. But the ovens fit, anyhow, so that’s good.