Merrilee Rush and the Turnabouts
Merrilee Rush and the Turnabouts
After a less-than-satisfying engagement with his last record label, Marshall Crenshaw’s taking his music straight to the people. Funded through a Kickstarter campaign, Crenshaw’s developed a subscription project that will turn out a series of six three-song 10” vinyl EPs, each featuring a new song, a cover and a remake from the singer-songwriter’s rich catalog. The EPs also include a code with which the analog-deprived can download digital versions of the recordings. The first EP was delivered earlier this year, and this second entry features a new A-side, “Stranger and Stranger,” filled with lyric uncertainty and underlined by Bryan Carrott’s vibraphone. The B-sides include a superb acoustic remake of Crenshaw’s “Mary Anne,” that was originally recorded for the 2008 film God is Dead, and a fully orchestrated cover of the Carpenters’ “(They Long to Be) Close to You.” The latter is played straight, with smooth choral backing vocals and a trumpet solo by Steven Bernstein. The EP with digital download, as well as a one-year three-EP subscription, is available through Crenshaw’s on-line store. [©2013 Hyperbolium]
This Provo, UT quartet has a modern rock sound that usually suggests the The Shins, but the A-side, “I Won’t See You,” of their new EP is sweetly rooted in the 1970s soft-rock hits of Fleetwood Mac, Andrew Gold and others. The song’s melody and harmonies are warm and comforting, and it’s not until the song transitions into a more angsty chorus that you realize you’re not listening to a period piece. Even then, a short guitar solo once again captures the mood of ’70s radio and leads back to another gorgeous verse. The EP’s second track edges more towards Gin Blossoms territory, but the rhythm guitars could still bring you back to 1976. The closing “Birds” returns more to the modern-rock sounds of the Shins or Morning Benders, though the harmony vocals and blues-heavy undertow still tug at you from decades past. [©2013 Hyperbolium]
Three Hits was a short-lived mid-80s band with some very special credentials. The band was co-founded at Appalachian State University by Sheila Valentine and Michael Kurtz, the latter of whom later co-founded Record Store Day. The group’s jangly new wave fit easily into a North Carolina scene that included Glass Moon, Arrogance, X-Teens and others. The group’s second single, “Pressure Dome” b/w “Numbers” was produced by Don Dixon at Mitch Easter’s Drive-In Studio and released on Hib-Tone, a label better known for R.E.M.’s debut. The group played shows at CBGB and Maxwell’s, and recorded an eight-song LP, Fire in the House, with the Records’ Huw Gower producing several of the tracks. In celebration of Record Day, the Hib-Tone single is being reissued on a 12″ purple vinyl EP with the previously unreleased Dixon-produced “Picture Window,” and two Gower-produced tracks, “Cage of Gold” and “Lori (Last Girl on the Beach).” A digital download card provides two additional previously unreleased tracks: “Just One of the Guys” and “Wild Volcano.” A really welcome, and really obscure, blast from the past. [©2013 Hyperbolium]
Dave Armo is a Northern California ex-pat practicing law by day in Southern California, and chasing his musical dreams by night. He sings with a fetching uncertainty, and the guitars, mandolins and guitars that back him are played more for notes than chords or strums. There’s a dreamy quality to his tempos and a vulnerability to his alto singing that pull you in slowly and hold you tight. The effect is one of drifting with Armo through his thoughts as he serenades on “Lovers on the Beach” and buoys himself against uncertainty in “Destination Estimation.” He writes of declarations made too late to fulfill their promise, groveling lovers whose affection goes unreturned, emotional attractions weakened by distance, and on the stoner’s diary, “Blacked Out on Broadway,” he suggests a West-coast Paul Simon. Recorded over a two-year period, Amro lavished tremendous attention on his words, tone and expression, and the results are a hypnotic album of original material. [©2013 Hyperbolium]
The quality of music one person can create in a home studio is at times stupefying. The technology to make high-quality recordings can be bought, but the imagination to coherently layer instruments and voices over time is an almost otherworldly talent. Brian Wilson could hear complex productions in his head, but he relied on the talents of others to make them corporeal. Even a mastermind like Phil Spector was enabled by engineers, musicians and vocalists whose ideas, feedback and criticism fed into his final work. But there is a strain of lone wolf pop musician – Richard X. Heyman comes to mind – who are their own best company. They may also play well with others, but given the opportunity to hone their vision in solitude, over a long period of time, they can create something extraordinary.
Such is the talent of Shropshire (UK) singer-songwriter Jim Williams. After two albums with the Americana band Additional Moog, Williams launched this solo project and spent two years recording and refining, transforming the country sounds of his demos into the layered Americana-pop of these final mixes. Though this isn’t technically a solo album – Ben Davies plays drums and Gerry Hogan adds touches of steel – the heart and soul of the album is Williams. He plays guitar, bass and keyboards, and his voice is both the lead and backing chorus. What’s most impressive though, is that throughout the album the interplay between the instruments, between the instruments and lead vocals, and between the lead and background vocals all sound more like a band than a studio-bound construction.
Williams cites Whiskeytown as an influence, and his productions suggest the polishing leap of Strangers Almanac and Wilco’s Being There. His voice has some rustic edges, but is more often in line with the pop style of Matthew Sweet and Michael Stipe. His harmony arrangements suggest CS&N, and the album’s loping rhythms and pedal steel hint at Déjà vu. There are a lot of influences shoehorned into these eight tracks, and though the lyrics are mostly impressionistic, notes of melancholy, regret, resignation and hope filter through. The album’s calling card is the mood expressed in its melodic hooks, lyrical pacing and deft instrumental mix – a grand achievement for an artist recording and producing himself in a home studio. [©2013 Hyperbolium]
The sophomore release from this Queens quartet continues to mine the intersection of angsty guitar pop, twangy Americana and Stonesish rock they debuted in 2009. Vocalist (and songwriter) Mike Montali also continues to charm with a voice that takes in the quivering vulnerability of Robin Wilson, the keening alto of Neil Young and the bluesy tint of Chris Robinson. Four years from their first album, the band has been road-honed into a tight, powerful outfit, but the arrangements have the extemporaneous feel of musicians are reacting to their singer’s story telling. The title track takes listeners on a thematic ride that starts slowly with the push of a hollow bass drum, gains speed with growling electric guitar chords, breaks down in contemplative depression and finally regains its locomotive traction.
Montali’s songs of second chances are accompanied by guitars that are tentative with their force, backing lyrics perched between asking, suggesting and telling. The music turns hopeful with the expectant possibilities of “Faith & Love” and melancholy for the introspective “If It Ain’t Me.” Lead guitarist Jon Bonilla shows off his chops with solos on the workingman’s lament “Doghouse Blues” and the driving blues-rocker “Walk on Water.” Tracks 1, 4, 6 and 8 are drawn from a 2012 EP that added Michael Hesslein’s keyboards, but given that set’s limited circulation, it’s great to have these tunes available again. Hollis Brown seemed fully formed back in 2009, but the extra years of playing out and writing has more deeply assimilated their influences and tightened the resonance between lyrics, vocals and instruments. [©2013 Hyperbolium]
Fans of the Box Tops’ Memphis-tinged radio pop, whether period AM listeners or working their way backwards from Big Star or Alex Chilton’s solo work, will find something interesting here. The band’s ten charting singles (from 1967’s chart-topping debut, “The Letter,” through the non-LP “Turn on a Dream” and “You Keep Tightening Up on Me”) are supplemented by four B-sides, all in their original gut-punching mono. The B’s include the first Alex Chilton track released on a single, “I See Only Sunshine,” as well as “Together,” his B-side to “Turn on a Dream.” Though the group’s original albums provide a deeper experience, stringing together the hit singles and a few B-sides closely replicates how the band was heard by record buyers at the time. It’s a compelling introduction to Alex Chilton’s soul-soaked vocals and the terrific production of Dan Penn, Chips Moman and Tommy Cogbill. It’d be great if someone released a complete singles collection, adding the missing B-sides and the group’s later sides for Bell, Hi and Stax, but at fourteen tracks the set provides some lesser-heard B-sides without losing the focus on the group’s hits. Best of all, the mono mixes deliver an original sound that really distinguish this set from the longer Best of the Box Tops. [©2013 Hyperbolium]
It’s been nine years since Chris Stamey’s last solo album, Travels in the South. In the interim he’s worked with Yo La Tengo on A Question of Temperature., re-teamed with fellow dB Peter Holsapple for Here and Now, regrouped with the dB’s for Falling Off the Sky, and continued a busy career as a recording engineer and record producer. The long years between solo outings are certainly understandable, if not necessarily a happy state of affairs for fans; but those same fans should feel rewarded by this collection of eleven magnificent new productions. Stamey’s melancholy tunefulness has never sounded more graceful, rendered in contemplative tones and finely crafted instrumental textures that shift seamlessly between rock, soul, jazz and classical.
Stamey’s formal education in music theory and composition has never been a secret, but his recent work on the Big Star Third concerts seems to have deepened his thinking about how orchestral instruments could fit into and augment his music. He interleaves strings, woodwinds and brass with guitars, bass and drums, dotting his musical landscape with cello, bassoon, flute and trombone. The results are both ethereal and dynamic, offering everything from neo-psych dreaminess to symphonic vigor, sometimes within the same song, as on the sky-gazing “Astronomy.” This coalescing of musical influences is seemingly foreshadowed by the merging of souls in the opener, “Skin.”
At 59, Stamey’s long since expanded upon the punchy guitar rock with which the dB’s introduced themselves, though “You n Me n XTC” has a chorus hook that will make listeners think back. The album plays as late-night ruminations on metaphysical wanderings, philosophical wonderings and haggard day-end inventories. Stamey sings with a thoughtful absorption that suggests Paul Simon’s folk songs, and the self-referential “I Wrote This Song for You” has the charm of an Alex Chilton love song. Stamey’s lyrics remain poetic, but his vocabulary and singing have softened from their earlier percussiveness – a change that fits these pensive songs. [©2013 Hyperbolium]