Emerson Hart: Beauty in Disrepair

April 16th, 2014

EmersonHart_BeautyInDisrepairA superbly wrought album of modern power pop

Seven years after his album debut as a solo act, and more than a decade after relocating to Nashville, singer-songwriter Emerson Hart is back with his second album. Hart first came to notice through his band Tonic, but was heard even more broadly with the crafting of “Generation” for the Dick Clark-produced television show, American Dreams. His latest, produced by David Hodges, has a bigger sound than 2007′s Cigarettes & Gasoline, and the arrangements are more dynamic and dramatic than the singer-songwriter vibe of his earlier work. Hart’s voice fits well into these beefier backings, carving a human-sized emotional channel through Hodges’ powerfully constructed productions.

Like more recent Nashville transplants, Hart connects to the power balladry of modern country, rather than the city’s twangy musical heritage. There are worn down moments, such as the troubling reminders of “To Be Young,” and introspective “Mostly Gray,” but the album first grabs listeners with the soaring chorus of “The Best That I Can Give.” Beyond the latter’s instantly hummable melody, Hart communicates the song’s conflicted emotion with the tone of his voice and the top-range notes for which he reaches with every last ounce of strength. The apologetic lyric turns out to be icing on a perfectly bittersweet cake, and offers a preview of the album’s themes of uncertainty and unexpected repercussions. The exasperated questions of “Who Am I,” though not as venomously bitter, will remind listeners of Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend, and “Hurricane” finds a similar middle ground between intellectual dissection and emotional flight.

From the number of songs of separation, one might assume this album is the product of a fresh break-up. But as a relative newlywed, it’s more likely that Hart is a romantic who’s collected a lifetime of emotional scars into the realization that life isn’t just full of ups and downs, it is ups and downs. The disappointments of “Don’t Forget Yourself” and sad inevitability of “Hallway” are the tail-end of experiences worth the suffering and lives that aren’t fatalistic. Hart’s mood turns celebratory for the twang-tinged love song “You Know Who I Am,” and the album closes with “The Lines,” an uplifting song about the growth that springs from inexperience. It’s a fittingly hopeful and inspirational ending to an album that dwells, inventories, analyzes and finally draws direction from the highs and the lows that give each other dimension. [©2014 Hyperbolium]

Emerson Hart’s Home Page

Sid Selvidge: The Cold of the Morning

April 6th, 2014


It’s safe to say that Big Star wasn’t the only 1970s Memphis act that didn’t find the contemporary recognition they deserved. They weren’t even the only 1970s Memphis act produced by Jim Dickenson to sail in that uncharted boat. Singer-songwriter Sid Selvidge, having been reared in Greenville, MS, followed the migratory trail to Memphis in the early 60s and continued to steep in the music of his native South. He fell under the tutelage of Furry Lewis, made friends with Dickenson and Don Nix, waxed an album for a Stax subsidiary and after a multi-year stint in academia, returned full-time to music to make art rather than commerce.

After an early 70s album for Elektra was shelved, Selvidge teamed with Dickenson to record this 1976 release for the local Peabody label. Unluckily for Selvidge, the label chose that very moment to go out of business (echoing Big Star’s trouble with Stax a few years earlier), returning the master and an initial press run that had no distributor. Luckily for Selvidge, the album was strong enough to gain notice with only haphazard distribution of a small number of copies. But with big city eyes upon him, Selvidge discovered that New York showcases and major label interest wasn’t what he was looking for. Instead of pursuing these leads, he returned to Memphis, revived the Peabody label as a going concern, toured and released sporadic albums of his own.

Though The Cold of the Morning garnered some critical notice at the time of its release, it fell out of print more than twenty years ago and drifted into the memories of the few who discovered its original issue or lucked into a word-of-mouth recommendation. The same could be said of Selvidge’s sporadically released later albums: treasured by a small number of in-the-know fans, but physically elusive to the larger audience of blues and guitar listeners who would have enjoyed them. The track lineup include three fine originals (“Frank’s Tune,” “The Outlaw” and “Wished I Had a Dime”), but it’s the album’s cover songs that fully reveal Selvidge’s breadth and interpretive depth. The set opens with superbly selected and rendered take on Fred Neil’s “I’ve Got a Secret (Didn’t We Shake Sugaree),” sung a shade more upbeat to Selvidge’s solo finger-picked backing.

The album’s other mid-60s gem is Patrick Sky’s “Many a Mile,” a song whose wistfulness is amplified by the purity of Selvidge’s voice and guitar playing. Reaching further back, George M. Cohan’s “Then I’d Be Satisfied with Life” retains a turn-of-the-century tone in Selvidge’s vocal slides and ragtime guitar. The jazz age “I Get the Blues When it Rains” is augmented by the piano and washboard of Mud Boy Slim and the Neutrons, and “Miss the Mississippi and You” is sung with an introspective lilt that’s less sentimental than Jimmie Rodgers original. Omnivore’s 2014 reissue adds six bonus tracks, each of which matches the quality of the original dozen. The traditional “Wild About My Lovin’” and Charley Jordan’s mid-30s blues “Keep it Clean” are especially fine, but truth be told, Selvidge picked great songs and made great recordings of each one.

Selvidge balances the nostalgia of older material with a timeless folk presentation of guitar and voice. Mud Boy and the Neutrons lend support for two tracks (“Wished I Had a Dime” and “I Get the Blues When it Rains”), but Selvidge’s picking and singing (including a cappella and yodeling) are so musically complete that the production really benefit from the clarity of his presentation. The productions are spare, but the complex interplay of voice, guitar, melody and lyrics is filled with subtlety and depth. Omnivore’s reissue includes a twenty-page book filled with photos and extensive liner notes by Bob Mehr. If you managed to miss out on this album over the past thirty-eight years, this is a perfect chance to get acquainted. [©2014 Hyperbolium]

Sid Selvidge’s Home Page

Adam Nayman: It Doesn’t Suck – Showgirls

April 6th, 2014

AdamNayman_ShowgirlsItDoesntSuchThoroughly entertaining defense of the indefensible

Readers might be inclined to think this book is a put-on, but Adam Nayman’s apparent sincerity, obvious writing talent and impressive analytical dexterity is convincing. Convincing that he means it, if not necessarily right. Nayman is a 20-something film critic, and his well-researched treatise on Paul Verhoeven’s legendary 1995 box office bomb is a thoroughly entertaining read, if not necessarily a completely convincing defense. Nayman is among a group of critics that have turned the table on the film’s initial reception, suggesting that Showgirls isn’t just not bad, it’s a modern classic that was sorely misunderstood by both reviewers and viewers.

The key to appreciating Showgirls is, paraphrasing author Anne Rice, to interrogate the text from the right perspective. Nayman’s approach isn’t tongue-in-cheek irony, simple-minded contrarianism, or the mental slight of hand of Jason Hartley’s Advanced Genius Theory; his appreciation is unabashed fandom.  Nayman argues that the careers of director Verhoeven and writer Joe Eszterhas anticipate their work in Showgirls, and that analysis of the film itself reveals that the filmmakers knew exactly what they were doing. Verhoeven is posed as a satirist and provocateur, the film’s lack of subtlety as an artistic choice, and the laughter it generates for over-serious scenes as an opportunity rather than an accident.

If one accepts the film’s most ridiculous moments as intentional, rather than unconscious mistakes, a number of critical analyses begin to flow. First and foremost for Nayman are the film’s mirror-like, self-reflexive qualities. Starting with the film’s star, Elizabeth Berkley, Nayman suggests that Showgirls provided an opportunity for her reinvention as a grown-up actress that parallels the film’s main character, Nomi Malone. But as Nayman continues to ascribe intention to what might easily be a lack of care or perspective, one starts to wonder if Occam’s razor is a more straightforward explanation of the parallels. Berkley and Malone both aimed for grown-up, but ended up in entertainment that was merely adult.

It’s possible that Nayman is seeing depth where there are really only artistic shallows, and he’s seeing causation where there is really only coincidence. Nomi’s relationship with her roommate might be subtle and complex, but it might simply be poorly thought out and rendered. The homophones for Nomi – “Know Me?” and “No Me” – could be clever entendre, or they could be nothing more than on-the-nose, inch-deep word-play. He argues that the film is too self-conscious to be camp, but it’s difficult to overcome the feeling that no matter how many of the film’s worst moments you explain away, the film still manages to be worse.

Nayman brings welcome context for casual viewers, including the existence of the little-known companion book Showgirls: Portrait of a Film and Rena Riffel’s low-budget spoof sequel, Showgirls 2: Penny’s From Heaven. Though he occasionally employs the sort of hyperbole for which the film was originally ridiculed, the bulk of his analysis is well-reasoned, deftly written and hugely entertaining. Nayman may be an analytical genius, or simply a talented writer tackling a lost cause; but either way, his book is a fun and surprisingly thought-provoking read. [©2014 Hyperbolium]

Monkees on Tour!

March 26th, 2014

The three surviving Monkees, Mickey Dolenz, Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork will be regrouping for a fourteen date tour along the East Coast and into the Mid-West:

5/22 HAMPTON, NH  Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom
5/23 ATLANTIC CITY, NJ  Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa
5/24 NEWARK, NJ New Jersey PAC
5/25 HUNTINGTON, NY The Paramount
5/27 BETHLEHEM (PHIL.), PA Sands Bethlehem Event Center
5/28 GREENSBURG (PITT.), PA  The Palace Theater
5/30 DETROIT, MI Fox Theater
5/31 MERRILLVILLE, IN  Star Plaza Theater
6/1 MILWAUKEE, WI Riverside Theater
6/2 MINNEAPOLIS, MN Weesner Family Amphitheater
6/4 KANSAS CITY, MO Uptown Theater
6/5 ST. LOUIS, MO Fox Theater
6/6 CINCINNATI, OH PNC Pavilion at Riverbend Music Center

More info at www.monkees.com.

The Presidents of the United States of America: Kudos to You!

March 23rd, 2014

PresidentsOfTheUnitedStates_KudosToYouAnother round of rock and rye

This Seattle pop-punk band had a brief blaze of fame with a pair of albums in the late ’90s and promptly consigned themselves to a cycle of retirement and reunion. They call their commitment “full-time part-time,” reconvening every four or five years to put together an album of rocking irreverence that finds their creative batteries recharged and their band chemistry fully intact. The band’s material brings to mind Jonathan Richman, Ben Vaughn and They Might Be Giants, but they’re less child-like than Richman and less pathos-filled than Vaughn, which leaves them in a pure-pop place to write about such shared interests as insects (“Slow Slow Fly” and the wonderfully overblown “Flea vs. Mite”), cars (“Crown Victoria”) and the work-a-day world (“She’s a Nurse”). Kids will love “Crappy Ghost,” but may cry when they find out it’s not the theme song to a beloved 1970s Saturday morning cartoon they can stream on Netflix. Several of the songs rework earlier material from the Presidents, their predecessor Egg and Chris Ballew’s post-PUSA Giraffes, but all are given a completely new kick in the ass. Fans will also want to track down the live album Thanks for the Feedback, released simultaneously as part of this album’s Pledge Music campaign. [©2014 Hyperbolium]

The Presidents of the United States of America’s Home Page

Holly Golightly and the Brokeoffs: All Her Fault

March 23rd, 2014

HollyGolightlyBrokeoffs_AllHerFaultAnother winning set of idiosyncratic blues, folk and country

The latest collaboration between Holly Golightly and Lawyer Dave doesn’t really break any new ground, but when you’re in a solid groove, new ground isn’t necessarily the place to plow. Golightly herself says “I’m not looking to achieve something that hasn’t been achieved before. We just do what we do. The songs are really all that changes.” But changing the songs turns out to be enough, as the idiosyncratic combination of folk musics they’ve developed over the past seven years still has new things to say. As before, the tracks are assembled in the studio instrument-by-instrument and voice-by-voice, but the productions aren’t overworked, and their unfinished edges retain the vitality of performance.

The duo’s interests in country, blues and R&B continue to dominate, with vocals that range from sing-out hootenannies to cooler moods that recall solo albums like Laugh it Up. Golightly sings girlish country on “No Business” and adds 50s-styled harmonies behind the resigned lead of “The Best.” The former includes terrific electric guitar, and the latter has a drifting piano that signals the album’s newest instrumental member. Piano is heard tinkling behind the blue waltz “Pistol Pete,” and rolling riffs along the edges of “Bless Your Heart” and “Pefect Mess.” Lawyer Dave picks and strums throughout the album, with plenty of slide to give things twang.

The duo’s penchant for clanking percussion remains a major element of their music, and the blue-folk “Can’t Pretend” once again brings to mind their modern-day take on Richard & Mimi Farina. Tracks that really highlight the pair’s musical ethos include the rough-and-ready stomp heard on “1234” and “Don’t Shed Your Light,” and the slow-moving organ-stabbed blues of “King Lee.” The album’s lone cover is Richard Jones’ “Trouble in Mind,” taken upbeat from its earliest incarnations [1 2] and goosed by a yowling vocal. This is an imaginative album of songs whose roots are yet again twisted and turned into something original. [©2014 Hyperbolium]

Holly Golightly’s Home Page

Billy Joel and Jimmy Fallon: The Lion Sleeps Tonight

March 21st, 2014

Ronnie Milsap: Summer Number Seventeen

March 18th, 2014

RonnieMilsap_SummerNumberSeventeenA sweet, nostalgic trip to the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s

It’s hard to believe that it’s been more than two decades since Ronnie Milsap’s twenty year run of chart-topping success (including 35 #1s) finally faded. He’s continued to record albums and release occasional singles, branching out from mainstream country into standards, gospel, and with his latest release, oldies. Milsap visited his pop music roots before with 1985′s Lost in the Fifties Tonight, and that album’s #1 title song (which played off the Five Satins’ 1956 doo-wop hit “In the Still of the Night”) is reprised here as the album closer. The opening title tune provides another slice of nostalgia with its memories of teenage years, lush harmony vocals and a honking sax solo.

The track list is mostly given to covers of 1950s and 1960s chestnuts, transforming pop ballads, R&B, doo-wop, Motown, Philly soul and country into adult-contemporary productions filled with easy tempos, strings and cooing backing vocals. Lloyd Price’s “Personality” and Bobby Darin’s “Mack the Knife” each get a kick from horn charts, and a funky arrangement of “Mustang Sally” energizes Milsap’s performance. Mandy Barnett shows surprising talent for singing ’70s soul on a duet of “You Make Me Feel Brand New,” and Hank Williams’ “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love with You)” is stretched into a compelling croon. Milsap doesn’t really challenge the material, but his thoughtful readings connect deeply with songs he obviously loves. [©2014 Hyperbolium]

Ronnie Milsap’s Home Page

Various Artists: Canine Classics, Volume 1

March 9th, 2014

Various_CanineClassicsVolume1Clever dog-themed remakes of pop hits

Bay Area music legends Dick Bright (Bammies, SRO, Dick Bright Orchestra) and Tommy Dunbar (Rubinoos, Vox Pop) have teamed up to produce an album of dog-themed treats. Each track re-imagines a popular song – including tin-pan alley classics, ’50s rock and doo-wop, ’60s pop, ’70s soul and ’80s new wave – as it should have been, written in the voice of, or about, a dog. There are a few Singing Dogs-styled barks, but mostly Bright and Dunbar draw upon their talented human friends for the vocals. For the most part, these songs retain their original mood, but with the subject shifted a dog’s perspective. The Irish ballad “Danny Boy” retains its sense of loss, longing and renewal as “Chewy Toy,” and the Vapors’ bouncy “Turning Japanese” is transformed into the equally catchy “Turning Pekingese.” The collection’s most clever trick is Maurice Williams & The Zodiac’s doo-wop “Stay,” a song whose title clearly anticipated this collection. Shirley Ellis’ “The Name Game” is just as dance-worthy when riffing on classic dog names  and the Champs’ “Tequila” stays South of the border as “Chihuahua.” Dunbar has previously dabbled in both covers and childen’s music with the Rubinoos, and Dick Bright etched his name in the mash-up cover song hall of fame with “Gilligan’s Island (Stairway).” Their combined humor and musicianship makes this collection fun for kids without wearing out its welcome with the elders. The CD is delivered in a Hugh Brown-designed, hard-bound 30-page book that features lyrics, photos and even a dog advice column. All in all, it’s a howl. [©2014 Hyperbolium]

Jimbo Mathus & The Tri-State Coalition: Dark Night of the Soul

March 7th, 2014

JimboMathus_DarkNightOfTheSoulOutstanding album of rootsy, blue rock ‘n’ soul

Squirrel Nut Zippers founder Jimbo Mathus actually never strayed far from the blues of his native Mississippi. Just as the Zippers were taking off in the late ’90s, he recorded an album of Delta blues, ragtime and jug band music in honor of Charley Patton, and in financial support of Patton’s daughter (and one-time Mathus nanny), Rosetta. Following the Zippers’ initial disbanding in 2000, he toured and recorded with Buddy Guy, set up his own studio, and began a string of albums that explored the many Southern flavors with which he grew up. In 2011 he waxed Confederate Buddha, his first album with the Tri-State Coalition, and explored various shades of country, soul, blues and rock ‘n’ roll.

The band’s third album knits together many of the same musical threads, but in a finer mesh than the debut, and with an edge that leans more heavily on rock, blues and soul. You can pick out moments that suggest the Stones (and by derivation, the Black Crowes), but a closer parallel might be an older, grizzled version of Graham Parker, as Mathus sings his deeply felt, soulful declarations and confessions. There’s a confidence in these performances that suggest songs workshopped for months on the road, but in reality they were developed over a year of casual studio time, and nailed by Mathus in demo sessions and by the band live in the studio. Mathus connects with these songs as if they’re extemporaneous expression, and like the best slow-cooked ribs, the exterior may be lightly charred, but the heart remains tender.

Listeners will enjoy the swampy southern rock and hint of Hendrix in “White Angel,” Memphis soul (and a lyrical tip to Lou Reed) in “Rock & Roll Trash,” and the Neil Young-styled fire of “Burn the Ships.” Matt Pierce’s and Eric “Roscoe” Ambel’s guitars are featured throughout, with scorching electric leads answering Mathus’ vocals. The album turns to country for the moonshiner story “Hawkeye Jordan” and Casey Jones (the railroad engineer, not the Grateful Dead song) is given an original spin in “Casey Caught the Cannonball.” Mathus covers a lot of ground between the love song “Shine Like a Diamond” and the addict’s lament, “Medicine,” but it’s the album’s unrelenting rock ‘n’ soul intensity that will both will keep your undivided attention. [©2014 Hyperbolium]

Jimbo Mathus’ Home Page