Mark Erelli: Milltowns

December 9th, 2014

MarkErelli_MilltownsA deeply felt tribute to New England singer-songwriter Bill Morrissey

When a song is recorded, its performance is frozen at a point in time that instantly begins to age. But when a song is passed along, it is reborn every time it is performed anew. The same can be said for songwriters: when their lives end, their performances pass into record and memory, but their songs continue to be renewed in the performances of others. And so it is with New England singer-songwriter Bill Morrissey, whose passing in 2011 closed the book on his life as a performer, but whose songs remains alive in the voices of others.

Mark Erelli is one of those voices, and as a disciple of Morrissey, he’s reflected the teacher’s craft in his own work. To repay the debt, Erelli’s recorded an album of Morrissey covers, capped by an original composition that reflects on the bookends of their relationship: the first time they met and the last time they performed together. It’s a bittersweet close to an album of covers that is itself a bittersweet catalog of longing, missed opportunities, farewells, happenstance, wanderlust and resolution that’s sometimes happy, sometimes resigned.

Morrissey’s songs are filled with details that could probably be traced to specific inspirations. He intertwines people, places and things, employing emotions, actions and even geographic details as the seeds of his observations. He steps inside his characters as they observe themselves and others, and distills these thoughts into lyrics whose truth seems to have been latent, waiting to be exposed. His characters struggle with the harsh realities of the Northeast’s declining milltowns, banal jobs, dashed dreams and harrowing reflections of their own mortality.

As drawn by Erelli’s selections from Morrissey’s catalog, love is a restless siren whose call is as likely to be heard departing as it was arriving. But there are bursts of hope, such as the optimism that pours out of “Morrissey Falls in Love at First Sight” and the expectations of “Long Gone.” There’s also humor, albeit of a gallows variety, as “Letter From Heaven” imagines a hereafter where one’s heroes have shucked off their Earthly foibles. Perhaps Erelli imagines that this vision of heaven welcomed the songwriter himself, as the closing elegy “Milltowns” laments the songwriter’s struggle with alcohol.

Erelli’s talent as a musician is magnified by his taste as a producer. Performed and produced in large part by himself in his basement studio, the guitars, dobro, mandolin, harmonica, bass and drums all appear naturally in place, with nothing missing and nothing extra. Even the overdubs of his guest musicians and vocalists sound as if they were added extemporaneously. It’s a mark of his instrumental and studio prowess that the layering sounds so organic, showing absolutely no trace of construction.

The fealty to Morrissey and the craft of his songwriting add up to something much more than a covers album; it’s a personal tribute from someone who knew, worked with and learned directly from the subject. Morrissey’s songs were passed to Erelli in much deeper form than a recording or sheet music, or even a performance; Morrissey’s legitimization of the Northeast as a place from which gritty, honest folk music could spring was a legacy that launched Erelli’s career, and something for which Erelli is obviously deeply grateful. These performances remind us that a songwriter’s songs make an indelible mark on the world as their DNA is passed in an intergenerational chain. [©2014 Hyperbolium]

Mark Erelli’s Home Page
Bill Morrissey’s Songbook

Butchers Blind: Destination Blues

December 5th, 2014

coverThe disillusions of age in twangy alt.country time

Long Island-based Butchers Blind has developed an impressive catalog of original country-rock over the past five years. Over that time, the band’s playing, arrangements and recordings have tightened up, and vocalist Pete Mancini’s songwriting has deepened. His latest collection meditates in large part on the disillusioning realizations that come with age, including disaffection from work, the banality of static relationships, the recognition of one’s own selfishness, and perhaps worst of all, the inability to sustain the passions of youth. You can hear the hoarse, reedy tone of Jeff Tweedy in Mancini’s voice, but there’s a thread of lament that provides the album’s dominant mood. Fans of Wilco, Son Volt and the Jayhawks will quickly cotton to Butchers Blind, and they’ll be pleased to find the band’s music stands on the shoulders of alt.country giants rather than follows blindly in their footsteps. [©2014 Hyperbolium]

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Amy McCarley: Jet Engines

December 3rd, 2014

AmyMcCarley_JetEnginesWant, desire and a dose of pragmatic pessimism

It’s little surprise that singer-songwriter Amy McCarley developed an early affection for co-producer Kenny Vaughan’s work with Lucinda Williams. She writes from a similar emotional place as Williams, and her vocals evidence the same sort of moaning world-weariness. She’s at once resigned to and responsible for the outcomes of her decisions, whether it’s a painful morning-after or even more painful personal realization. But even with a history filled with signposts, her tiptoeing gives way to wading and headlong dives, and she often finds herself tangled in others’ webs of emotion and deceit.

McCarley explores the tension between the ties that bind and an urge to escape. She sings of running towards new experience in “Head Out of Town,” but subtly undermines her direction with a revelation in the last verse. She weighs the ache of losing against the emptiness of not playing, and on “Won’t Last Forever” she proves herself a pragmatic pessimist who enjoys the fruits of relationships before their inevitable rot. Like Williams, there’s desire and want in McCarley’s songs, but also a feisty thread of individuality; it’s the relief of the latter against the former that adds personal notes to themes that ring with universal appeal.

Producers Vaughan and George Bradfute draw out McCarley’s varied moods with mixtures of electric and acoustic guitars, bass and drums, ranging from rainy day introspection to upbeat Saturday night carousing. McCarley feeds off the collaboration, setting her vocals deeply into the pocket and letting the music give her lyrics a sympathetic frame. The twangy “Turn the Radio On” recalls the music of Albert Brumley’s gospel classic “Turn Your Radio On,” though its call-to-loving is on a different spiritual plane, and the album’s title track has a reggae undertow in its rhythm. McCarley’s self-titled debut showed that she had the songwriting goods, and with the help of Vaughan and Bradfute she’s found a new level of expression in the studio. [©2014 Hyperbolium]

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The Electric Mess: House on Fire

December 2nd, 2014

ElectricMess_HouseOnFireNew York garage rockers up their attack

New York’s Electric Mess returns with a new album that intensifies their Farfisa-laced mid-60s garage rock with the raucous bombast of the Stooges and Dolls. Esther Crow still spits out her lyrics with the ferocity of a latter-day Paul Pierce, but this time the organ plays from the sidelines as the group’s louder, harder instrumental attack takes center stage. Even when the tempo slows for “She Got Fangs” or the licentious “Lemonade Man,” the ferocity doesn’t dip, and up-tempo numbers like “Beat Skipping Heart” sound as if they’re being sprayed from a high-pressure fire hose. You can still hear the band’s mid-60s roots, but the location has changed from a suburban garage to a downtown squat. [©2014 Hyperbolium]

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Whitey Morgan and the 78’s: Born, Raised & LIVE From Flint

December 2nd, 2014

WhiteyMorganAndThe78s_BornRaisedAndLiveInFlintOld-school outlaw honky-tonk, live from Flint, MI

Though the 78’s lineup has revolved a few times since the group took their name in 2007, singer, songwriter and guitarist Whitey Morgan (nee Eric Allen) has proven himself a consistent leader across the group’s recordings and live performances. Their latest release snapshots the band in 2011, laying down hardcore honky-tonk in Morgan’s home town of Flint, and sounding like Waylon (and the Waylors) on a good night. Flint may be physically closer to Saginaw than Nashville, but its rust-belt living lends a lot of grit to the band’s music. Morgan performs with a swagger that resonates with a crowd ready to celebrate hard-drinking tunes like “Turn Up the Bottle,” “Another Round” and the ironically titled “I’m Not Drunk.”

Morgan touches on several of country’s favorite topics – women, drinking, cheating, and how women and cheating lead to drinking – and shows why they’re perennials. He’s fatalistically accepting of both cheating and drinking on the two-stepping “Cheatin’ Again,” but lets his loneliness drive as he seeks another chance with “Prove it All to You.” The band’s low-key take on Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire” is surprisingly effective, as are covers of Johnny Paycheck’s cautionary “(Stay Away From) The Cocaine Train” and Dale Watson’s Billy Joe Shaver tribute, “Where Do You Want It?” The 78’s are a tight unit, with Brett Robinson’s steel and Mike Lynch’s piano really standing out. If you can’t catch the band live, make sure to play this loud at your next party. [©2014 Hyperbolium]

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The Living Kills: Odd Fellows Hall

November 25th, 2014

LivingKills_OddFellowsHallDark psychedelic rock from the garages of Brooklyn

Singer, songwriter, guitarist and vocalist Merrill Sherman returns with an expanded five-piece line-up of the Living Kills for this new EP. As with their album Faceless Angels, the whining tone of Jennifer Bassett’s organ pinpoints the band’s inspiration in the garages of the 1960s. The rhythm riff of the opening “Anywhere” suggests the Moving Sidewalks’ “99th Floor,” but Bassett expands the epoch with some space-age Moog. Sherman’s songs explore B-movie and horror-related themes previously championed by the Cramps, and the arrangements buzz with the energy of the 13th Floor Elevators, Doors and UK Freakbeat. Newly added drummer Brian Del Guercio keeps a punchy backbeat, and bassist Ross Fisher adds a rumbling bottom end that will catch anyone walking by the garage. [©2014 Hyperbolium]

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Buffalo Sunn: Ocean

November 22nd, 2014

Catchy lead single with an instant vocal hook from this Irish sextet’s upcoming album By the Ocean, By the Sea. The booming, reverb-heavy production recalls U2, Big Country and others, but there are touches, like a background castanet, that add a touch of the ’60s.

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Scruffy the Cat: The Good Goodbye

November 20th, 2014

ScruffyTheCat_TheGoodGoodbyeNot-so-scruffy odds & sods from 1980s indie-roots-rock legends

This late-80s Boston band barely managed to break beyond college radio adoration, but with their catalog back in print alongside this disc of previously unreleased demos, live-in-the-studio performances and unused session tracks, it’s a great opportunity for reappraisal. The group’s 1987 debut, Tiny Days, brought critical praise for its country-tinged Boston rock, while the less scruffy 1989 follow-up, Moons of Jupiter, garnered mixed reactions to its tighter productions and pop sounds. Whether or not the band was actively striving for broader success, this disc of material spanning the years before and after their formal releases demonstrates the many influences and broad aspirations that make them something of a Boston-based analog of NRBQ.

The band’s earliest tracks don’t evidence the overt country twang that would come shortly. “The Burning Cross” has a droning undertow that suggests Boston contemporaries like the Neats, as well as West Coast compatriots in the Paisley Underground. As the band developed, Stona Fitch’s banjo became a dominant flavor as songwriter and vocalist Charlie Chesterman even took to folk-country crooning for “Lover’s Day.” The group’s growing in interest in country sounds was inventively mated to surf harmonies for Leon Payne’s “Lost Highway,” and covers of Larry Williams’ “Slow Down” and Buddy Holly’s “Well… All Right” are given acoustic-roots twists.

The distance traveled from the garage-psych of 1984’s “The Ghost Psych” and the Beau Brummels’ inspired harmonies of “Tonight” to the horn- and organ-lined Memphis soul of 1989’s “Sweet News” isn’t as long as it might seem, and the path feels entirely organic. Though the latter sessions don’t exhibit the youthful abandon of the band’s earlier work, the barn-burning “I Knew That You Would,” powered by Burns Stanfield’s boogie-woogie piano, offers a return to the Boston club rock in which Scruffy steeped, and the closing “The Good Goodbye” shows off how seamlessly the band could combing its influences.

For a group with a small official catalog, their cache of odds & sods is impressive. Even better, Pete Weiss’ mastering of the disparate tape sources has sewn things together into a surprisingly consistent experience. The jump from 1985 (tracks 5-14) to 1989 and beyond (track 15 onward) leaves Scruffy’s commercial era unmined; perhaps nothing of value existed on tape, or the anthologizers felt the previously released recordings spoke best. Either way, what’s here neatly bookends Sony’s recent anthology, and offers a great spin for both Scruffy die-hards and those just seeking very fine 1980s indie-roots-pop. [©2014 Hyperbolium]

Town Without Pity

November 18th, 2014

Few remember – or even knew – that Gene Pitney’s breakthrough hit, “Town Without Pity,” was both the title and title song of a 1961 film. Even more surprisingly, the melody was written by Dimitri Tiomkin, who scored dozens of westerns, five films for Frank Capra (including It’s a Wonderful Life), and composed the score and theme song for Fred Zinneman’s High Noon. He not only wrote the melody for High Noon‘s “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling,” he believed in it enough to buy the rights back and release it as a Frankie Laine single. It was recorded by Tex Ritter for the film and won Tiomkin an academy award for best song.

Tiomkin’s other enduring Western classic is the theme song to the late-50s television show Rawhide, which Frankie Laine also took up the charts. Two years later, Tiomkin wrote the score and title track for “Town Without Pity,” gaining another Oscar nomination, winning a Golden Globe, and giving Gene Pitney his first Top 20 single. Pitney’s recording is included in the film, but the song is also rendered as a jazz instrumental and as a transitional theme. Tiomkin garnered several more Oscar and Golden Globe nominations and awards, but never again cracked the pop or country charts!

Handsome Jack: Do What Comes Naturally

November 18th, 2014

HandsomeJack_DoWhatComesNaturallyBlues-soaked rock and soul, heavy on the grooves

Alive Records has long-since reached a critical mass that just seems to attract heavy, blues-soaked guitar rock bands. The label’s gravity has pulled this Buffalo quartet into orbit for a follow-up to their independently released Super Moon. Their new album is heavier on the grooves, with guitar strings thick with twang, deep bass lines, resonant snare drumming and just enough organ (both keyboard and mouth) to step this up from power trio form. The songs burn slowly, with tempos that emphasize power over speed. There are a few guitar solos, but they’re rangy rather than flashy, and what really draws you is the unwavering authority of the rhythms. The album hits a soul stride with “Leave it All Behind” and “Right On, the former sounding as if Arthur Alexander stepped out of the studio just long enough for the band to work up an original, the latter could be Little Feat’s heavier alter ego. Handsome Jack’s music resonates with the atmospheres of rock’s great ballrooms – the Avalon, Fillmore, Winterland, Agora, Grande – and the bands who rocked them. They call their music “boogie soul,” but the boogie gave birth to rock and their souls are plugged into an extension cord that stretches from Buffalo to the Delta. [©2014 Hyperbolium]

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