Since her second offering, the self-issued Drag Queens in Limousines in 1999, and continuing through the stellar Filth & Fire in 2002, Texas singer/songwriter Mary Gauthier has quietly and consistently raised the aesthetic bar for herself. She has been favorably (and accurately) compared toTownes Van Zandt for her literate American gothic songs about wasted lives, desolate characters who roam the highways like ghosts, shattered dreams, and frustrated expectations. But Gauthier never exploits her characters; she views them with a piercing tenderness and empathy, painting them with dignity and humanity. On Mercy Now, Gauthier digs a little deeper; she comes down on the side of the song itself. The protagonists whose tales she relates are given rich musical voices, adding depth, dimension, and flesh and blood as related by her keen-eyed observations, unflinching poetic language, and willingness to be subtle and not intrude. Her razor-wire, weatherbeaten, loving kindness digs deep as it pleads for release on "Falling Out of Love," which opens the record. With her acoustic guitar in minor mode, a deep, lonesome harmonica, hollow, sparse percussion, and producer Gurf Morlix's trademark slow-wrangle slide, she sings and even becomes the voice of the broken-hearted blues. There is no sentimentality in her view, just the taut edginess that is so wearying and anxious about trying to get past the addiction to a memory seared with every breath. On the title track, Gauthier's guitar and voice offer a gritty, moving meditation on compassion, invoking mercy for all those who suffer, from family to church and country to those who are nameless and faceless. There is nothing facile in Gauthier's words, nothing remotely trite or ordinary about the weariness in the grain of her voice, as Brian Standefer's cello and Morlix's lap steel fill the center and carry the message to the heavens humbly, slowly, purposefully. "Wheel Inside the Wheel," written for the late Dave Carter, is a spooky rolling and choogling banjo/guitar extravaganza. It features characters from Gauthier's New Orleans Mardis Gras: Louis Armstrong, Marie Laveau, the Krewes, etc. -- all of them metaphors for the transmigration of souls. Her cover of Harlan Howard's "Just Say She's a Rhymer" is as back porch as it gets, dressed in fiddle, steel, strummed six-strings, and plodding bass. Her delivery comes out of time and space and rests fully in this moment. Gauthier inhabits the song as if it were her own. The set closes with the punchy, electric "It Ain't the Wind, It's the Rain." A Hammond B-3 carries the tune from underneath as stinging guitars, throbbing basslines, and Gauthier's clear, prophetic voice rings over it all. What a finish; what a record. Mercy Now cuts deep into the heart -- it showcases not onlyGauthier's prowess with the poetry and craft of song, but her humility and wisdom as she digs further into its chamber of secrets.
Wednesday, July 31, 2013
While many considered Car Wheels on a Gravel Road and Essence as definitive statements of arrival for Lucinda Williams as a pop star, she "arrived" creatively with her self-titled album in 1988 and opened up a further world of possibilities with Sweet Old World. The latter two records merely cemented a reputation that was well-deserved from the outset, though they admittedly confused some of her earliest fans. World Without Tears is the most immediate, unpolished album she's done sinceSweet Old World. In addition, it is simply the bravest, most emotionally wrenching record she's ever issued. It offers unflinching honesty regarding the paradoxes inherent in love as both a necessary force for fulfillment and a destructive one when embraced unconsciously. Fans of her more polished, emotionally yearning material may have a hard time here because there isn't one track -- of 13 -- that isn't right from the gut, ripped open, bleeding, and stripped of metaphors and literary allusions; they're all cut with the fineness of a stiletto slicing through white bone into the heart's blood. World Without Tears is, among other things, predominantly about co-dependent, screwed-up love. It's about relationships that begin seemingly innocently and well-intentioned and become overwhelmingly powerful emotionally and transcendent sexually, until the moment where a fissure happens, baggage gets dumped in the space between lovers, and they turn in on themselves, becoming twisted and destructive -- where souls get scorched and bodies feel the addictive, obsessive need to be touched by a now absent other. The whole experience burns to ashes; it becomes a series of tattoos disguised as scars. The experience is lived through with shattering pain and bewilderment until wrinkled wisdom emerges on the other side. Most of Williams' albums have one song that deals with this theme, but with the exception of a couple of songs, here they all do.
Musically, this is the hardest-rocking record she's ever released, though almost half the songs are ballads. Her road band -- on record with her for the first time -- cut this one live from the studio floor adding keyboards and assorted sonic textures later. The energy here just crackles. Sure, there's gorgeous country and folk music here. "Ventura," with its lilting verse and lap steel whining in the background, is a paean to be swallowed up in the ocean of love's embrace. In fact, it's downright prosaic until she gets to the last verse: "Stand in the shower to clean this dirty mess/Give me back my power and drown this unholiness/Lean over the toilet bowl and throw up my confession/Cleanse my soul of this hidden obsession." The melodic frame is still moving, but the tune reverses itself: It's no longer a broken-hearted ballad, but a statement of purpose and survival. "Fruits of My Labor" is a straight-ahead country song. Williams shimmers with her lyric, her want pouring from her mouth like raw dripping honey. Her words are a poetry of want: "I traced your scent through the gloom/Till I found these purple flowers/I was spent, I was soon smelling you for hours...I've been trying to enjoy all the fruits of my labor/I've been cryin' for you boy, but truth is my savior." One can hear the grain of Loretta Lynn's voice, with an intent so pure and unadorned. But the muck and mire of "Righteously," with its open six-string squall, is pure rock. It's an exhortation to a lover that he need not prove his manhood by being aloof, but to "be the man you ought to tenderly/Stand up for me." Doug Pettibone's overdriven, crunching guitar solo quotes both Duane Allman and Jimi Hendrix near the end of the tune. "Real Live Bleeding Fingers and Broken Guitar Strings" is a Rolling Stones-style country-rocker with a lyric so poignant it need not be quoted here. "Over Time," a tome about getting through the heartbreak of a ruined relationship, could have been produced by Daniel Lanois with its warm guitar tremolo and sweet, pure, haunting vocal in front of the mix.
"Those Three Days" may be the most devastating song on the record, with its whimpering lap steel and Williams' half-spoken vocal that questions whether a torrid three-day affair was a lie, a symbolic sacrifice, or the real thing. The protagonist's vulnerability is radical; she feels used, abused -- "Did you only want me for those three days/Did you only need me for those three days/Did you love me forever just for those three days." Yet she holds out hope that there is some other explanation as the questions begin to ask themselves from the depth of a scorched heart and a body touched by something so powerful it feels as if it no longer owns itself. Pettibone's solo screams and rings in the bridge to underline every syllable and emotion. "Atonement" is something else altogether; it's a punkish kind of blues. If the White Stripes jammed with 20 Miles in a big studio it might sound like this, with Williams singing from the depths of a tunnel for a supreme megaphone effect. She growls and shouts and spits her lyrics from the center of the mix. And Taras Prodaniuk's fuzzed-out basement-level gutter bass is the dirtiest, raunchiest thing on record since early Black Sabbath. "Sweet Side" is almost a poem in song, attempts to inspire someone who's been broken by life to accept his goodness. It is not a rap song despite what's been written about it so far. It's more in the tradition of Bob Dylan's early talking blues, but with a modern organic rhythm played by Jim Christieinstead of drum loops. In addition, there is the gorgeously tough "People Talking," the most straight-ahead country song Williams has written since "Still I Long for Your Kiss" (from the Horse Whisperer soundtrack, not the version that appears on Car Wheels, which is dull and lifeless by comparison). Here again, Pettibone's guitar and the slippery, skittering shuffle of Christie's drumming carryWilliams' voice to a place where she can sing her protagonist's personal, soul-searing truth without restraint.
World Without Tears is a work of art in the Henry James sense; it is "that which can never be repeated." It is as fine an album as she could make at this point in her life -- which is saying plenty. While she has never strayed from her own vision and has made few compromises, this album risks everything she's built up to now. The audience she's won over time -- especially with her last two records -- may find it over the top, which would be too damn bad; it'd be their loss. Hopefully, history will prove that World Without Tears sets a new watermark for Williams, and is an album so thoroughly ahead of its time in the way it embraces, and even flaunts, love's contradictions and paradoxes -- the same way the human heart does.
Tuesday, July 30, 2013
It would be very easy for CocoRosie to make merely ornamental music and focus only on the pretty, ethereal sound that was so charming on La Maison de Mon Rêve. Fortunately, Sierra and Bianca Casady have more ambition than that, and they've managed to craft very different identities for each of their albums -- no small feat, especially since their approach is so distinctive. On The Adventures of Ghosthorse and Stillborn, they combine the cleanest, most polished-sounding production to appear on a CocoRosie album with a stark hip-hop influence, making this the duo's most focused, and strangest, album yet. The sisters explore this polarity throughout The Adventures of Ghosthorse and Stillborn, opening the album with the bold, jaunty beats of "Rainbow Warriors" and following it with the much more delicate trip-hop of "Promise." Switching back and forth between mischievous, endearingly awkward moments and one of breathtaking beauty like day and night, or waking and dreaming, it's almost as if the album posits each of the Casadys' talents as opposing viewpoints. The tracks Biancatakes the lead on are bright and outrageous, like "Japan," which bounces along like the Mad Hatter's tea party as she sings, "Everybody wants to go to Iraq/But once you go there, you don't come back." The song's topsy-turvy feel only deepens when Sierra's eerie background vocals turn into a cheery trumpet melody. Meanwhile, "Black Poppies" and the other songs Sierra dominates delve even deeper into the narcotic chansons of La Maison de Mon Rêve and Noah's Ark. Her singing on The Adventures of Ghosthorse and Stillborn is her finest yet, especially on the middle-of-the-day lullaby "Sunshine" and "Miracle," where she has much more power and range than some of her previous kitten-ish Billie Holiday impersonations would suggest. The playful arrangements that are so vital to CocoRosie's sound come into sharper focus on this album, too, with a toy box's worth of sound effects adding poignancy and whimsy to "Animals" and harp and trumpet deepening "Raphael"'s mournful beauty.The Adventures of Ghosthorse and Stillborn's densely packed sounds and ideas are a lot to process, but they're what makes this album rewarding on repeated listens -- and what makes CocoRosie's yin-yang, fractured fairy tale sound still surprising three albums into their career
Monday, July 29, 2013
It was the band's first album not to feature bassist Jennifer Condos, and showed a major departure from their former style. Instead, they now incorporated the use of synthesizermoog pedals, giving the music a much stronger pop-rock sound. In addition, they recruited the assistance of several female backing vocalists on most songs, instead of relying on the other band members to back up Tito Larriva's vocals. This musical element is something the band also featured on their next album, 2002's Andalucia, which featured bassist Io Perry singing backing vocals on almost every song. The rest of the new elements featured on Little Bitch were mostly abandoned on Andalucia, which returned a sound more similar to that featured on the band's second album, 1999's Hungry Sally & Other Killer Lullabies.
The album also contained songs written by new songwriters. Charlie Midnight, who had co-written Tito & Tarantula's 1995 hit song "Back to the House (That Love Built)", co-wrote the music for "Everybody Needs". Larriva's former Cruzados bandmate, Steven Hufsteter, co-wrote "Crime & Shame", "World at My Feet" and "Super Vita Jane"; and ended up joining the band as a second lead guitarist. The music for "Dead Person" was co-written byDominique Davalos, who later became the band's bassist in 2005, and played on the album as a session musician, as the band chose not to hire a replacement for Condos to play on the album.
Dylan once hand-picked Tito Larriva's Plugz to back him up on Dave Letterman's show. But when the multi-culti punk group morphed into the Cruzados, Larriva's rock career went off-road. Tarantism is his return -- a blues-rock study on bugs and the angel of death. At its best, Tito & Tarantula sound like a dark, spaghetti western theme band, the Stones ("Slippin' & Slidin'"), Cream, and the folky Led Zeppelin ("Sweet Cycle") all in one. When Larriva sings instead of screams, he sounds like Jack Bruce, as on "Back to the House" and "Jupiter." It's just OK, but Larriva is the kind of guy you want to root for: audiences cheered big time when his Desperado character shot Quentin Tarantino. As a bit-part actor and composer, you can't better his hip filmography -- from Repo Man to Freeway to She's So Lovely. He also played Hammy in the original Pee Wee's Playhouse.
Sunday, July 28, 2013
Bossa nova is not unfamiliar to Diana Krall, but 2009's Quiet Nights is her first record devoted to the gently swaying rhythm. Teaming up again with arranger Claus Ogerman, who last worked with Krall on 2001's The Look of Love and who also frequently collaborated with bossa nova godfather Antonio Carlos Jobim, Krall winds up with a mellow, lazy album that recalls the relaxed late-night sophistication of Jobim's duet album with Frank Sinatra, which Ogerman also happened to arrange and conduct. It's not just the sound, it's the songs: how '60s standards like Bacharach/David's "Walk on By" sit next to three Jobim tunes, a song by Marcos Valle ("So Nice"), and a few American Songbook standards placed at the beginning, the better to ease listeners into purer bossa nova at the end. Then again, they don't need much persuasion -- if any music could be called accessible it's this, with its warm intimacy and classic good taste. If anything, there may be a bit too much classic good taste on Quiet Nights -- there is no reinterpretation, only homage -- but that's not quite a problem because Krall knows enough to lay back, to never push, only to glide upon the gossamer surface. After all, some things are timeless for a reason; they need no updating, only replicating.
Pianist/vocalist Patricia Barber is the Alanis Morissette of the jazz world. Her serpentine, poetic songs teeter between deftly witty and awkwardly Latinate. Each album is more ambitious than the last, taking her deeper into avant-garde territory both lyrically and instrumentally. Verse is no exception. Case in point: "I Could Eat Your Words," a canny bit of word play in the tradition of "Peel Me a Grape," in which Barber barely gets away with words like "provocation" and "syllogistically," only to sum things up with the devastating line, "sip the spit from your bittersweet rhyme." The indelible track here, though, has to be "If I Were Blue," featuring the line, "If I were blue, like David Hockney's pool/Dive into me and glide under a California sky/Inside your mouth and nose and eyes am I." It's perhaps the best thingBarber has ever written -- it could be considered serious modern poetry if only it didn't rhyme. About the biggest complaint one can lodge against Barber is her insistent denial of melody. Her voice is soft, almost matter-of-fact, and she more or less hints at singing. Obviously, lyrical intent is more important to Barber than how she carries a tune, and her voice does seem more suited to whispering torch songs cabaret-style, such as on "Dansons la Gigue," than delivering any vocal gymnastics. It's just that sometimes her songs could be showcased better with a consistently delivered vocal melody. However, she makes up for her lack of sonorousness (to use a Barber kind of word) with intricate musical arrangements, this time around augmented by the Miles Davis-cum-Lester Bowie trumpet ofDave Douglas. Barber's is a world of cloaked intentions, and Douglas' playful vibrato works like the flame of a candle illuminating her soft, shadowy corners.
Central Heating was the second compilation released by Grand Central Records. The two disc album was originally released in November 1996. It was re-released in February 2004 with alternative sleeve art.
- "Central Introduction" - Tony D
- "How Sweet It Is" - Mr. Scruff & Mark Rae
- "Spellbound (featuring Veba" - Rae & Christian
- "Second Street Gogo" - Tony D
- "Hand Of Doom (featuring Clita Johnrose)" - Andy Votel
- "Through These Veins (featuring Afu Ra)" - Funky Fresh Few
- "Pourquoi (featuring Buffy Brox)" - Only Child
- "Good Advice" - Rae & Christian
- "Rain (featuring Buffy Brox)" - Only Child
- "It's Time Two (featuring Chubby Grooves)" - Tony D
- "Original Stuntmaster" - Aim
- "Hemlock'd" - Andy Votel
- "You Mean Fantastic" - Funky Fresh Few
- "Loopdreams" - Aim
- "When We Get Together" - Tony D
- "Gotta Have Her" - Mr. Scruff & Mark Rae
- "Lunagroove" - Only Child
- "Baseball Fury" - Rae & Christian
- "Spooky Driver" - Andy Votel
- "Souldive (All City mix)" - Aim
- "Northern Sulphuric Soul" - Rae & Christian
Sakamoto's all-star blend of Western and Eastern music styles is a triumphant success for the composer, and a consistently good listen. On the title track he takes a traditional Japanese folk song and blends it into a funk groove provided by Bootsy Collins, Bill Laswell, and Sly Dunbar. Unlike Byrneand Eno's My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, this blend of cultures is coming from the opposing angle and stays truer to the source material. But that track is only one of Sakamoto's approaches, and on several other tracks he joins with Laswell to create a crisp, techno-cultural hybrid that sounds like nothing except like pure Sakamoto. On "Risky," a subdued Iggy Pop lends vocals and lyrics, and doesn't come across as an interloper. And on "Okinawa Song," Sakamoto seamlessly integrates the southern island culture into his grand scheme.
Saturday, July 27, 2013
Toumani Diabate is one of the finest contemporary kora players. Diabate teams with Ballake Sissoko for New Ancient Strings, a collection of African harp duets. Recorded in one take in Diabate's native Mali, New Ancient Strings is at once ethereal and earthy.