Elana James: Black Beauty

March 29th, 2015

ElanaJames_BlackBeautyA fiddler’s longing and guilty pleasures

James has made a name writing, singing and playing a unique combination of hot jazz and Western Swing with Austin’s Hot Club of Cowtown. Though known primarily for her virtuosity as a fiddler, her voice, much like fellow instrumental prodigy Alison Krauss, has always held special qualities. Her self-titled 2007 solo album combined the same talents she’d leveraged in Hot Club – fiddle, voice and songwriting – but in a wider context that glimpsed her influences through the selection of cover songs. Eight years later, her second album expands on the same premise, weaving together originals, instrumentals (“Eva’s Dance” and “Waltz of the Animals”), and a selection of covers that spans jazz (“All I Need is You”), folk (“Hobo’s Lullaby”), counterculture classics (“I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” and “Ripple”), ‘70s novelty (“Telephone Man”) and even ‘80s synthpop (“Only You”).

Impressively, James brings this wide range of material under one tent. Her plucked violin opens the album in place of Vince Clark’s synthesizer for Yazoo’s “Only You,” with a double-tracked vocal that’s lighter than Alison Moyet’s original. The song’s mood of longing is a fitting introduction to James’ originals, which include the unbreakable hold of “High Upon the Mountains” and the second-thoughts of “Reunion (Livin’ Your Dream).” The latter might have been the album’s most poignant moment, had James not turned a letter from a U.S. soldier into the eulogy “Hey Beautiful: Last Letter from Iraq.” Setting the words of Staff Sgt. Juan Campos to music, James evinces a longing for home that’s beyond homesickness, and in it’s true-to-life source, beyond the craft of lyric writing. It’s a touching complement to James’ original songs and the revelations she offers through her selection of covers. [©2015 Hyperbolium]

Elana James’ Home Page

Jesse Winchester: A Reasonable Amount of Trouble

March 21st, 2015

JesseWinchester_AReasonableAmountOfTroubleAn endearing epitaph from a legend

Much like Warren Zevon’s The Wind, Jesse Winchester’s A Reasonable Amount of Trouble turned out to be his own epitaph. Unlike Zevon’s album, recorded in the shadow of a terminal diagnosis, Winchester recorded this final studio work while in remission, with hope still on the horizon. But even with his cancer at bay, mortality had clearly become a presence that was impossible to ignore. And so Winchester engaged it directly with songs that ponder life, and indirectly with songs – particularly cover songs – that held onto his abiding faith in music.

Reaching back to the Clovers’ “Devil or Angel,” the Del-Vikings’ “Whispering Bells” (complete with yakety sax), and the Cascades’ “Rhythm of the Rain,” Winchester found comfort in songs that had first stoked his love of music. Given his own prowess as a writer, it’s telling that he spent a quarter of the album on songs whose soulful resonance still gripped him fifty years later. His new material has a clear sense of nostalgia, but also a thankfulness for the here and now. He recalibrates his perspective, remembering to always value and enjoy life’s pleasures, and extols the virtues of people and places he’s loved and those that have loved him.

Winchester’s draft-induced emigration to Canada is captured in both the album cover, a parting gift to his mother in 1969, and the song “Ghost.” The latter reaches back to Winchester’s late teens, and alongside “A Little Louisiana” and “Never Forget to Boogie,” tells the story of his musical birthright. The album finally draws itself up to the inevitability of Winchester’s situation with the touching “Every Day I Get the Blues” and the contemplative closer, “Just So Much.” Winchester lived a songwriter’s life to the very end, allowing his questions and worries to wash over him, facing down fate and holding on firmly to sentiment without ever becoming maudlin. [©2015 Hyperbolium]

Jesse Winchester’s Home Page

RIP: Michael Brown

March 20th, 2015

Michael Brown, 1949-2015

Your name and mine inside a heart upon a wall
Still finds a way to haunt me, though they’re so small

James McMurtry: Complicated Game

March 19th, 2015

JamesMcMurtry_ComplicatedGameA welcome return of McMurtry’s experience and imagination

It’s been seven years since singer-songwriter James McMurtry offered up an album of new material. His last release, 2009’s Live in Europe, recontextualized McMurtry’s societal observations in front of a European audience, and though the songs took on new shades in front of a foreign audience, the CD was still more of a tour memento than a new statement. Which leaves 2008’s Just Us Kids as his last full thesis. At the time, McMurtry’s observation fell upon broad social issues of political disorder, social isolation, economic disruption and ecological destruction. Seven years later, his concerns haven’t abated, but his songs narrow their focus to witness these larger issues at human scale.

The album’s opening track, “Copper Canteen,” finds its aging protagonists struggling to hang on to their small town life. The big box stores on the bypass loom over them, reframing broad questions about mass-scale marketing to personal issues of an individual town’s demise. Their fears find salve in nostalgic thoughts and the hope that they can hold on to retirement, as they remain fatalistic rather than desperate or bitter. Nostalgia threads through many of McMurtry’s new songs, with wanderers looking back to see where they lost the trail and community totems memorialized by those who remember. The portraits of hard-working fishermen, hard-luck ranchers and unemployed veterans are both inspiring and heartbreaking, and blend easily into songs of depression and escape.

Peeking through the darker scenes, there are a few glimmers of sunshine. The everyday details of “How’m I Gonna Find You Now” are rattled off in a monologue whose agitation reveals the narrator’s unspoken feelings, and the portraiture of “Things I’ve Come to Know” stems from the sort of intimacy that is born of time and devotion. On its surface, the album feels less overtly political than Just Us Kids, but the incisiveness of the lyrics turns these individuals’ stories into social commentary. McMurtry labels himself a writer of fiction, but the details he captures in songs like “Carlisle’s Haul” are too visceral to have been read in a book. He may fictionalize, but the people, places and language are as much experience as they are imagination.

Co-produced by CC Adcock (Lafayette Maquise, Lil’ Band O’ Gold) and engineer Mike Napoutiano, the guitar-bass-and-drums are augmented by well-placed touches of banjo and violin, and given added dimension from Hammond B3 (courtesy of Benmont Tench), moog bass (courtesy of Ivan Neville), Uilleann pipes, and various electric guitar sounds. The longer songs give the band a chance to play into the grooves, but the productions never lose sight of the vocals. McMurtry is a singer who tells stories, and a storyteller who sings melodies. At times he sounds like a more-melodic Lou Reed, with a half-spoken, half-sung style whose medium and message are inseparable. Seven years is a long time to wait for a new album, but in addition to McMurtry’s busy road schedule, songs this finely observed spring from experience rather than demand. [©2015 Hyperbolium]

James McMurtry’s Home Page

Anne McCue: Blue Sky Thinkin’

March 19th, 2015

AnneMcCue_BlueSkyThinkinAnne McCue swings

Anne McCue is better known for standing in front of guitars and drums than clarinets and brass. Her previous albums reached back to the gutsy sound of 1970s rock vocalists, as well as contemporaries like Sam Phillips and Lucinda Williams; her latest reaches back several more decades, to the sounds of the 1930s. There’s always been a bluesy edge to her singing, and here those notes consort with the roots of swing and gypsy jazz. McCue dials down the ferocity of her vocals to an era-appropriate slyness, picks terrific figures on her guitar, and perhaps most impressively of all, writes songs that bid to fill some blank pages in the great American songbook.

Drummer Dave Raven nails the era’s blood-pumping excitement with Krupa-styled tom-toms on the opening “Dig Two Graves,” Deanie Richardson’s fiddle provides a superb foil for McCue’s six string swing, and Jim Hoke’s clarinet and horn chart fills in the period detail. The song’s bouncy tempo camouflages lyrics of noirish revenge, with San Francisco fog cloaking fatalistic fortunes. McCue turns to folk-blues with the finger-picked renewal of “Spring Cleaning in the Wintertime” and the old-timey “Cowgirl Blues.” She turns into a charming, coquettish chanteuse for “Long Tall Story,” and gets slinky, ala Peggy Lee, on the double bass and finger-snapping “Save a Life.”

Within the realm of swinging beats, McCue’s songs are quite diverse, ranging from the rockabilly “Little White Cat” to the fiery tango “Uncanny Moon.” There’s a nostalgic jazz core to the album, but it’s embroidered with elements of New Orleans funk, New York sophistication, big band rhythms, sinuous blues, stage flair and lyric craft. Dave Alvin guests as vocalist on the Cab Calloway-styled “Devil in the Middle,” and the album’s lone-cover, Regis McNichols Jr.’s contemporary “Knock on Wood,” fits perfectly with the standards vibe. McCue’s virtuosity is no surprise, but the ease with which she’s absorbed and restated the beating heart of swing music is impressive and thrilling. [©2015 Hyperbolium]

Anne McCue’s Home Page

Ron Sexsmith: Saint Bernard

March 16th, 2015

From the upcoming album Carousel One. Inspired by an anonymous family dog from a photo picked up in a second-hand shop.

The Ronettes: Be My Baby

March 14th, 2015

Gurf Morlix: Eatin’ at Me

March 12th, 2015

GurfMorlix_EatinAtMeCircumstance, disappointment and nostalgia yield unexpected insights

Two years ago, Gurf Morlix’s Finds the Present Tense, found the singer-songwriter contending with noir-like inevitability and consequences. His protagonists were hung-up in the here-and-now, at intersections whose resolutions were one-way streets to the future. His new collection shifts the timeframe, looking back at a gritty childhood whose future was surprisingly open-ended. Unlike the fixed destinies of his fictional protagonists, Morlix’s own future was not set in stone by earlier events. The disappointments of “50 Years” yields surprises, and the smoke-filled air of “Born in Lackawana” didn’t obscure the choice between life in the steel mill and roads that led out of town. Morlix’s nostalgia is colored by the melancholy of time, and the distortions of his rear-view mirror leaves the temptations of “Dirty Old Buffalo” barely visible beneath the city’s newly polished exterior.

Morlix’s gruff tone and deliberate tempos are a piece with his songs of despondency, loneliness and exhaustion. But these emotional crucibles also produce resolve, such as that underpinning “Grab the Wheel,” and lifelines that remain visible in even the darkest of places. Redemption isn’t always at hand, however, and self-awareness isn’t necessarily a saving grace; some setbacks can only be moderated, and invitations, such as the bar in “Elephant’s Graveyard,” can turn out to be a trap. Morlix picks at the details of missed opportunities as if they’re a scab protecting healing flesh; but at the same time he’s searching for kernels of truth, such as found in a canine’s view of “A Dog’s Life,” or penetrating human insights, as essayed in the closing “Blue Smoke.” The search may be eatin’ at him, but it’s a fulfilling emotional and intellectual meal. [©2015 Hyperbolium]

Gurf Morlix’s Home Page

The Valentinos: Lookin’ for a Love

February 21st, 2015

Valentinos_LookinForALoveGospel-soul gold from Sam Cooke’s SAR label

The goldmine that is the ABKCO vault continues to pour out its riches. Earlier releases from the Stones, Sam Cooke, Herman’s Hermits, and the Cameo-Parkway catalog, are now complemented by a pair of seminal compilations by the Soul Stirrers and Valentinos. The former launched Sam Cooke’s career, and he returned the favor by signing the group to his own SAR label. The latter, comprised of future solo-legend Bobby Womack and his four brothers, (Friendly Jr., Curtis, Harry and Cecil), wove their father Friendly Sr.’s deep faith into a soulful sound born of Cleveland’s meanest streets. They held onto the fire of their church grounding even as their material moved from gospel to secular, and the arrangements from harmony-laden worship to hard-charging soul.

The group’s transition from sacred to profane didn’t happen all at once, nor ever completely. The driving rhythm of their first single, “Somebody’s Wrong,” and the soulful croon of “Somewhere There’s a God,” were never really left behind. Their lyrics soon turned to a search for romantic love, but the vocal fervor continued to resound with a congregant’s search for heavenly connection. Having himself made the transition from gospel to R&B in the mid-50s, Sam Cooke well understood both the stigma and opportunities. But after failing to gain commercial traction with Bobby Womack’s original gospel “Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray,” Cooke convinced the group to try R&B, commissioned his staff songwriters to rework the melodic hook of “Pray” into “Lookin’ for a Love,” rechristened the group as the Valentino’s, and scored their first and biggest hit single in 1962.

It wasn’t the last time that the Womacks and their songwriters would develop R&B material from gospel roots. The 1962 B-side, “Somewhere There’s a Girl” borrowed its melody and lyrical structure from 1961’s “Somewhere There’s a God,” and 1963’s “She’s So Good to Me” was based on the gospel standard, “God is Good to Me.” Curtis and Bobby Womack wrote the lion’s share of the group’s material, supplemented by songs from Sam Cooke, J.W. Alexander and a few others. “Lookin’ for a Love” was followed by the low-charting “I’ll Make it Alright” and the non-charting “Baby Lots of Luck,” putting the group’s commercial fortune in question. But two years after their breakthrough, Bobby Womack offered up a song that would top the charts. Just not by the Valentinos.

The Valentino’s country-tinged original “It’s All Over Now,” co-written by Womack and his sister in law, Shirley, was just starting to gain notice when the Rolling Stones rushed into the Chess studio in Chicago to wax their immortal cover. The Valentinos original still managed to climb to #21 R&B, but stalled out in the low 90s Pop as the Stones version rode to the chart’s upper reaches. Womack initially felt oppressed, like so many other African-American artists before him who’d been covered on pop radio, but his mood quickly turned. As he told Terry Gross in 1999, “Well, I didn’t like their version ’cause I didn’t think Mick Jagger – and to this day I say Mick Jagger can’t out-sing me. You know, but, when I saw that first royalty check, I liked their version.”

A final single for SAR, “Everybody Wants to Fall in Love,” was released in 1964, and with Cooke’s death in December of that year, the label folded. Bobby Womack, who’d been playing in Cooke’s road band, moved on to session work and solo stardom, and a depleted Valentinos finished out the decade with Chess and Jubilee. Of the nineteen tracks included here, ten appeared on the 2001 anthology Sam Cooke’s SAR Records Story, but – incredibly – this is the first official reissue of the Valentinos’ full SAR catalog, including both sides of all seven singles, six previously unreleased masters (13, 15, 18, 19, 20, and 21), and a hidden bonus track of Sam Cooke giving direction in the studio. The 12-page booklet features session, chart and personnel data, photos, ephemera and extensive liner notes by Bill Dahl. This collection is decades overdue, but now that it’s here, you’ll find it was more than worth the wait. [©2015 Hyperbolium]

Ron Nagle: Bad Rice

February 20th, 2015

RonNagle_BadRice1970s cult classic gets the deluxe reissue it’s always deserved

If you’ve worked at a college radio station with a deep library of vinyl, you might have been tipped to Ron Nagle’s 1970 album by a knowledgeable elder. Assuming it hadn’t been stolen, of course. Or maybe a songwriting credit (Barbra! The Tubes!) or the music he made on 1979’s Durocs prompted you to ask questions. Questions that led you on a journey through used record stores, flea markets and collectors’ forums. Perhaps an indie record store clerk even shelved a copy of Edsel’s 1986 vinyl reissue behind the counter for you. But more likely, and like the many fans of Nagle’s ceramics, you’ve never heard (or even heard of) this album. And that’s a wrong that’s finally being righted forty-five years after the fact.

Nagle’s one and only solo album was something of a lark, and was conceived at the intersection of his music and art careers. With his group the Mystery Trend having folded a few years earlier, he was focused full-time on ceramics. To help promote his first solo gallery show, he recorded the original “61 Clay,” and when the recording made its way to San Francisco’s KSAN-FM it caught the ear of the station’s major domo, Tom Donahue. Donahue got Nagle signed to Warner Brothers, and stayed on to co-produce the album with the legendary Jack Nitzsche. Recorded in both San Francisco and Los Angeles, the result drew heavily on Nagle’s Bay Area connections. In addition to his impressive vocals and keyboards, the album includes Beau Brummels Sal Valentino and Ron Elliott, Commander Cody’s steel player Steve Davis, Stoneground guitarists John Blakeley and Tim Barnes, and soon-to-be Pablo Cruise founder David Jenkins.  

Beyond the San Francisco connections, Nagle drew upon the talents of guitarist Ry Cooder, and legendary drummers Mickey Waller and George Rains. But even with all that talent on board, Nagle remains very much the star of the show. Launching his songs from biographical seeds, he sings of a childhood crush, his parents hyperbolic storytelling, and his marriages – the first dissolving in an ex-wife’s identity crisis, the second providing him the support to turn back alcohol problems. He adds a twist to the neighborhood bodega of “Frank’s Store,” creating heartbreaking pathos with his vocal and Nitzsche’s string arrangement. Nitzsche’s production is spot-on throughout the album, ranging easily from ballads to guitar rockers to the steel-lined country rock of “Something’s Gotta Give Now.” This is the mix of sounds that made the transition from ‘60s jams to tighter ‘70s songwriting so riveting.

So what happened? Why isn’t this universally known as one of the era’s great rock albums? Reportedly, Nagle’s reluctance to tour and FM radio’s lack of support caused the album to disappear almost immediately. Looking at underground FM playlists from the era, it’s hard to imagine how this failed to gain major turntable time, particularly with Warner Brothers’ publicity machine and Tom Donahue’s connections. But disappear it did, and despite two more attempts at stirring some commercial interest (the post-album tracks “Berberlang” and “Francine”), Nagle’s music career moved out of the spotlight. He’d return with Scott Matthews in the Durocs and Profits, write with Barbra Streisand (“Don’t Believe What You Read”) and the Tubes (“Don’t Touch Me There”), produce, and create sound affects for film, but as a solo musical act, he never returned.

Omnivore’s reissue augments the album’s original eleven tracks with material mined from Nagle’s vault, including two alternate mixes, a pair of period radios spots and a full disc of demos. The latter includes both material that was later re-recorded and Nagle originals that have otherwise gone unheard until now. Among the former is the original version of “61 Clay” and an early take on “Saving it All Up For Larry” that differs markedly from the Durocs version. Of the fourteen demos, only “From the Collection of Dorothy Tate” and “61 Clay” have been previously issues – the remaining dozen are heard here for the first time. As with the album tracks, Nagle drew heavily on his personal life, mining his relationships and emotions, and sharing his perspectives on the people he knew.

The production quality of the demos is surprisingly thoughtful and full, sounding more like outtakes than writer’s samples. Omnivore’s deluxe reissue spans two full discs housed in a tri-fold digipack with a twenty-page booklet. Gene Scalutti’s liner notes include fresh interviews with Nagle, and provides details on each of the demos. The booklet also features lyrics to the original album’s eleven songs. Bad Rice has appeared on most-wanted-CD lists for decades, and it’s hard to imagine a more fitting renewal than this lovingly crafted set. Though it’s only February, this may be the set to beat for reissue of the year. [©2015 Hyperbolium]

Ron Nagle’s Home Page