Posts Tagged ‘Singer-Songwriter’

Dan Mangan: More or Less

Monday, December 3rd, 2018

The philosophical road from troubadour to parent

Dan Mangan’s fifth album finds his life in transition from globetrotting musician to mid-30s parent. The confluence of emotional changes that marked this life change provides rich ground for an introspective singer-songwriter, and Mangan confronts both the loss of his youthful degrees of freedom and the satisfactions of adult responsibilities. On a meta level, his six-year hiatus from touring also finds him re-entering a music industry that’s drastically different than the one from which he laid out. In addition to his album, he’s developed a behind-the-songwriting video series and accompanying playlist for Spotify, as well as a live variety show for Instagram – all the accoutrements of a modern music artist.

The set opens with Mangan contemplating the emotional wreckage and resulting rebirth born of questioning and destabilizing one’s beliefs. He sees life’s lynch pins as containing both risk and opportunity, a mechanism whose tension stores energy. He ponders the dichotomy of his innocent infant son being born into a world whose balance was swung by the 2016 presidential election, and he seeks to insulate himself from the unknown that then lay ahead. The lies and half-truths of the election cycle inform “Troubled Mind,” as Mangan seeks to balance the urge to stay informed with the reflex to avoid the deceit of the political class. The song’s anxious rhythm suggests an intellectual timebomb threatening to explode from the rising cognitive dissonance.

Such philosophical quandaries are balanced with the seemingly mundane responsibilities of parenthood. Having given up the adventure of a musician’s world travel, Mangan surprises himself with the satisfaction of staying put and exploring the complexities of growing up and staying put. On “Cold in the Summer” he’s pulled into middle-age even as his youth tries to hang on. He’s trading the footloose freedoms of youth for the repetitions of adult life, but he’s unsure whether to lament the loss of the former for the gain of the latter. The solemn sounding “Fool For Waiting” is as close as Mangan gets to a love song, though even here he’s inside his own head, analyzing the experience of his feelings.

Mangan writes of approaching the album with a new-found sense of minimalism, but there’s a lushness to the music that belies the lack of thickly woven instrumental layers. The arrangements are minimal, but the album never sounds spare; that’s because Mangan’s voice is itself quite rich, and Drew Brown and Simone Felice’s production supports him with smooth bass tones, crisp drums and cymbals, and instrumental touches that occasionally lead to light psychedelic moments. It’s the right sound for such contemplative lyrics, inviting listeners to both feel the mood and interpret the lyrics. Though recorded in bits and pieces over several years, the album feels whole, and offers an eye-opening step forward. [©2018 Hyperbolium]

Dan Mangan’s Home Page

Chris Bell: Looking Forward / I Am the Cosmos / Complete

Saturday, December 30th, 2017

The most detailed look yet at Chris Bell before and after Big Star

Chris Bell’s untimely death in 1978 not only robbed the world of his musical greatness, but also froze his artistic assets. A full appraisal of his art was retarded by the paucity of available recorded material that lingered for many years after his passing. Big Star’s debut, #1 Record, despite the contemporaneous critical praise and retrospective glory lavished upon it, had been poorly distributed at the time of its 1972 release. Reissued in 1978, apparently to Bell’s delight, it’s imported manufacture delegated it to specialty shops. That same year, Bell’s solo single, “I Am the Cosmos,” was released on Chris Stamey’s Car label, but it would be fourteen more years until Ryko’s 1992 full-length I Am the Cosmos really started to flesh out the Chris Bell story. By then, Big Star had become an iconic reference among 1980s indie pop bands, and with Alex Chilton’s new Big Star formation in 1993, interest in Bell continued to grow.

The next cache of Bell material to turn up were pre-Big Star recordings by The Jynx, Rock City, Christmas Future and Icewater on collections dedicated to Big Star and the Ardent label. In 2009, Rhino Handmade provided further insight into Bell’s post-Big Star period with an expanded edition of I Am the Cosmos. Omnivore now pulls this all together, expanding upon what’s been excavated before with three new releases. First is the single CD Looking Forward: The Roots of Big Star, which adds six previously unissued tracks to the existing corpus of pre-Big Star material. Second is a deluxe reissue of I Am the Cosmos that adds eight tracks to the 2009 Rhino Handmade reissue. Third is an omnibus vinyl-only box set, The Complete Chris Bell, which collects the material from the first two sets, and adds an excerpt from Rich Tupica’s forthcoming biography, There Was a Light: The Cosmic History of Big Star Founder Chris Bell.

What’s immediately striking about the material on Looking Forward: The Roots of Big Star is how good it sounds. Ardent studio owner John Fry had the presence of mind to train a handful of musicians on recording technique, and let them practice in the studio’s down time. These sessions were free from the pressure of a studio clock or a label’s budget, and they allowed the musicians to explore their craft as players, engineers and producers. The six previously unreleased tracks include recordings by The Wallabys (“The Reason”) and Icewater (“A Chance to Live”) and four backing tracks. Big Star fans drawn to the backing track “Oh My Soul” will find it unrelated to the Chilton song of the same name, but the chugging groove is infectious and Bell’s guitar work superb. The unfinished “Germany” has fine vocal overdubs, and the gritty guitar on the alternate of “Feeling High” is terrific.

What shines through the early Ardent sessions is everyone’s unbridled enthusiasm, and for Chris Bell in particular, an optimism that had yet to be crushed under the weight of #1 Record’s commercial failure. From the earliest track, “Psychedelic Stuff,” through the British Invasion tones of the Wallabys, breakthrough compositions like “All I See is You,” and material that would be re-recorded by Big Star, everything rings with a sense of musicians chasing their muse, unencumbered by commercial considerations and with a growing sense that they could make music as meaningful and moving as their idols. Alec Palao’s liner notes include insightful interviews with John Fry, Steve Rhea, Terry Manning, Alan Palmore, Jody Stephens, Tom Eubanks, providing detail on the scene, sessions and tracks.

The eight tracks added to I Am the Cosmos include alternate versions, backing tracks and mixes that provide the final clues as to the journey Bell’s songs took throughout his lifetime. As Alec Palao notes, “unless some new studio sessions come to light in the future, [this set] is essentially the last word on the work of this quixotic talent.” Omnivore relocates the Icewater and Rock City tracks Rhino added in 2009 to a more natural spot on Looking Forward, and adds several mixes from the Big Star documentary Nothing Can Hurt Me. Bob Mehr’s liner notes tell of Bell’s spiritual, musical and geographical odysseys to record, overdub, mix and find a record deal. Alec Palao’s track notes further dissect Bell’s artistic restlessness by piecing together details of his intercontinental quest for perfection.

The avalanche of material that’s been posthumously released on Big Star, Chris Bell and Alex Chilton might feel Elvis- or Jimi-like, had the band not been so thoroughly ignored in their prime. The drive to learn how these artists came to produce #1 Record, Radio City and Third, and what became of them afterwards is delayed discovery rather than morbid curiosity. The books, documentary, reissues, best-ofs, box sets, archival artifacts, resurrections, reunions, and tribute performances might overwhelm lesser artists. But in the case of Chris Bell, the before and after provide a surround that magnifies the all-too-brief artistic flame. Those new to the Big Star canon should start with their albums, those who’ve already imbibed will want to dig the roots and the afterwards, and those who’ve already thoroughly explored the periphery will find something of value in upgrading. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

Peter Case: On the Way Downtown – Recorded Live on FolkScene

Wednesday, November 15th, 2017

Peter Case’s on-stage magic from 1998 and 2000

Peter Case has had a music career that few of his contemporaries can match. Breaking in with Jack Lee and Paul Collins as the Nerves, no one would have guessed it was the beginning of a musical road that’s now stretched more than forty years. Case’s second band, the Plimsouls, garnered a major label contract, tours and an appearance in Valley Girl, but this too ended up as prelude to a solo career launched by his eponymous 1986 album. Unlike the rock ‘n’ roll of his earlier bands, his solo work – both on record and in performance – put a greater focus on his songwriting, and it’s that songwriting that’s highlighted in these tracks taken from live radio performances in 1998 and 2000.

Both performances are drawn from Case’s appearances on KPFK’s FolkScene. The earlier set highlights material from Case’s Full Service, No Waiting, while the latter set combines material from Flying Saucer Blues and earlier releases, and adds covers of Mississippi John Hurt and Charlie Poole. Both sets were engineered by FolkScene’s resident engineer, Peter Cutler, and sparkle with the show’s warmth and Case’s creativity. Case is joined by the Full Service album band for the 1998 set, and by violinist David Perales for the later tracks.

At 40, Case was thinking deeply about the path from his childhood to his present. The title track is filled with the memories an ex-pat relishes in revisiting his hometown, while “See Through Eyes” laments the incursion of doubt that middle age brings. Case remembers his San Francisco years in “Green Blanket (Part 1)” and “Still Playin’,” and explores the roots of his rambling in the acoustic “Crooked Mile.” The first set closes with the adolescently hopeful “Until the Next Time,” while the second set opens in a more present frame of mind with “Something Happens.” Two years on, Case was still remembering notable moments from his past, but also looking forward.

The songs easily fit the band setting, but the starker guitar-and-violin arrangements of the second set provide Case’s singing and lyrics a more intense spotlight. He slips easily into the acoustic picking of Mississippi John Hurt’s “Pay Day” and wears the lyric with a familiarity that belies its mid-60s origins. Case moves easily between blues and folk, and Parales violin provides moody underlines, rapidly bowed sparks and intricate, emotional accompaniment, highlighted by his ornamental line on “Beyond the Blues.” Peter Cutler’s recording is clean and unaffected, and presents Case as you might expect to hear him in a club or on a street corner, with his musical magic at full power. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

Peter Case’s Home Page

Peter Himmelman: There Is No Calamity

Friday, September 15th, 2017

Philosophical rock ‘n’ roll looks at the world’s ills and cures

It’s been three years since Peter Himmelman rebuffed his own doubts with the introspective The Boat That Carries Us. The disillusion displayed in the 2007 documentary Rock God gave way to a more emotionally agile life that turned obstacles into opportunities for recalibration, and found happiness in the realities that his youthful dreams of fame had spawned. On this follow-up he focuses on dialectical questions of the mind and heart, looks outward at society’s barriers and wonders how one’s thoughts and emotions create and might ultimately contribute to the resolution of the world’s problems.

The opening “245th Peace Song” condemns the toxic political and social atmosphere that currently dominates America, but Himmelman seeks healing in place of scapegoating; pleading for solutions rather than protesting problems. He laments fear’s corrosive impact on societal bonds and advocates collective action as an antidote. At turns Himmelman can be defeated, deterministic, nihilistic and existential, noting that rich men run the world, wondering if we can even know whether meaningful decisions exist, and pitying those who coast through life without the friction that creates opportunities for redemption.

But in his heart, Himmelman is an optimist. The gospel-tinged “Ropes or Wings” opines that bitterness and hate are choices, but that hope, kindness and mercy are always ready options. He contemplates the seemingly infinite wealth of one’s memories, and cleverly rhymes his way through the impressionistic “Ribbon of Highway.” He strikes an inspirational tone that is part Springsteen and part Neil Diamond on several tracks, and the guitar playing, particularly the solo on “Smoke and Flames,” will remind you of how much you miss rock music. This album is intellectually deep and emotionally soulful, which will come as no surprise to Himmelman’s many fans. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

Peter Himmelman’s Home Page

Mike Younger: Little Folks Like You and Me

Thursday, September 14th, 2017

Canadian transplant makes socially aware country-rock in Nashville

The hoarse edge on Mike Younger’s voice might remind you of a young Don Henley, and there’s an earthiness to his delivery that’s more middle-America than Los Angeles. Originally from Nova Scotia, he wandered the world before setting down in Nashville where his rootsy honky-tonk and folk fit easily into the scene that lays beneath the city’s commercial sheen. His years as a busker taught him that gimmicks might stop a passerby, but it’s having something personal to say that will make them stay. That same lesson works well on record as he sings of both his own plights, and those of the audience to whom he’s played face to face.

He identifies with a working class that seeks a moment to dream of something better for themselves, as well as those they will leave behind to inherit the planet. His protagonists nobly hold to their convictions, even as their principles become their last possession, and they remain optimistic that the good in people will win over society’s most selfish instincts. He rejects the short-sighted profits of “Poisoned Rivers” and reflects on the gained experience of shared hardship as he laments a mortal ending on “How To Tell a Friend Goodbye.” The latter song’s lack of emotional resolution will be familiar to anyone who’s felt they came up short in a final farewell.

This is a serious album, but not one without lighter charms. “Never Was a Dancer” recalls Younger’s clever effort at turning his lack of experience into an invitation for instruction, with neatly crafted lyrics that leave the actual definition of “dancing” to the listener’s imagination. He falls for a honky-tonkin’ gal on “Rodeo Queen” and celebrates the week’s end with “The Living Daylights.” His songs of social conscience suggest Woody Guthrie, John Mellencamp, Steve Earle, and his first producer (for 1999’s Somethin’ in the Air), Rodney Crowell. Younger’s voice is authentic and he has something to say. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

Mike Younger’s Home Page

Guy Clark: The Best of the Dualtone Years

Friday, March 10th, 2017

Selections from his last three albums, plus demos

The Nashville-based Dualtone label has an enviable catalog, including albums by the Lumineers, Shovels & Rope, and perhaps most precious of all, Guy Clark. Clark arrived at Dualtone in 2006 as an oft-covered songwriter and a well-loved recording artist. His three studio albums for the label were each nominated for a Grammy, and 2013’s My Favorite Picture of You took home the trophy. Clark’s May 2016 passing turned these recordings into a capstone to a thirty-nine year career that made earlier stops at RCA, Warner Brothers, Asylum and Sugar Hill. Dualtone’s 19-track collection cherrypicks Clark’s three studio albums and his 2011 live release Songs and Stories, and adds a trio of previously unreleased demos that were co-written with Hal Ketchum, Marty Stuart and Holly Gleason.

No song in this collection is more emblematic of Clark’s observational powers than “My Favorite Picture of You,” in which he draws a lifetime’s worth of knowing – “a thousand words / in the blink of an eye” – from a bent and faded snapshot of his wife. Elsewhere in the collection he turns a thrift store guitar into a ghost story, and under his watchful gaze, a roadhouse parking lot harbors the drama and detail of a novella. The dreamlike interior of that dancehall is extolled in “Cornmeal Waltz” as a fiddle moves dancers gently around the floor in three-four time. Clark was a writer’s writer, musing on the physical and psychic costs of his art in “Hemingway’s Whiskey” and turning fierce weather into humorous poetry with “Tornado Time in Texas.”

The live tracks add several of Clark’s most-loved songs to the collection, including “L.A. Freeway,” “Homegrown Tomatoes,” and “The Randall Knife.” The former features a mid-song monologue that further illuminates Clark’s poor fit in Los Angeles, while the latter draws a portrait of his grief from an elegy to his father. Clark’s mantle as a songwriter is represented by songs that were covered by Kenny Chesney, Jerry Jeff Walker, Brad Paisley and John Denver, and his influences by a cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You.” The three newly uncovered recordings that end disc two are guitar-and-voice songwriter demos that emphasize the songs’ folkloric qualities. The tri-fold digipak includes liner notes by Gleason and spreads 68 minutes of music across two discs. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

Guy Clark’s Bandcamp Page

Scott Nolan: Silverhill

Monday, February 27th, 2017

A singer-songwriter balances hope against defeat

There are several shades of weariness in Scott Nolan’s latest album. He’s exhausted by a lifetime of emotional weight on his shoulders, both his own, and that which he’s assumed, and his soul seems worn by having to tell these stories. It’s a tone that effectively brings the listener into both the confidence of the story and of the singer. Nolan sings of emotional dead ends and the positive expectations that make them all the more depressing, drawing fragmented details that reveal a shared picture in the chorus. He opens the album with a canny observation of the dichotomy between temporality and immortality, surrendering to the inevitability of change while still seeking to guide its course. He may feint to fatalism, but there’s a current of hope animating his songs.

Recorded in Alabama with the band Willie Sugarcapps, the tempos are contemplative, almost tentative in spots, as the group discovered the songs live, without rehearsal. The result taps into the slower pace of the South, and turns the session into an intimate performance. Nolan draws on childhood nostalgia for “Fire Up,” but it’s tinted blue by innocence lost. Grayson Capps opens “Curl & Curves” inhaling and exhaling long notes on his harmonica, building up the nerve of Nolan’s quest for love – something that turns hoarse with sleepless expectation on “When Can I See You Again.” The album is beautifully crafted without being overworked, and closes with a pair of melancholy portraits that touch on the moods of John Prine and Neil Young. Nolan may be haggard, but he’s not defeated, and his music harbors a spark of hope. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

Scott Nolan’s Home Page

Joe Goodkin: Record of Loss

Sunday, February 12th, 2017

A singer-songwriter’s contemplative view of loss

On the second of a planned three-EP series, singer-songwriter Joe Goodkin continues to mine a deep streak of observation and self awareness. The first EP, Record of Life essayed a catalog of loss, regret and memory, rendered in detailed, personal images. This follow-up segues with the emotional fallout of its predecessor, recounting his losses nightly on tour, suffering additional bereavement, and finding that success doesn’t fully fill those voids. This time out he continues to sing of those he’s seen suffer and those he’s lost, but framed as celebrations of the remarkable and eulogies of the beloved, rather than lamentations of difficulty or loss. He’s mindful to appreciate what’s in front of him, rather than lament what’s gone, and to use each loss as an opportunity to refocus on what remains. The powerful closer, “For the Loss,” provides a rarely heard man’s viewpoint on the emotional consequences of abortion. Goodkin’s production, using only a 1963 Gibson ES-125T for backing, is remarkable as well. His multi-miked and overdubbed guitar creates a multitude of sounds, and vocals mixed from close-in and room mics build atmosphere around his singular voice. The third EP in the project, Record of Love, is due Summer 2017, but the first two parts stand strongly on their own and pair nicely as two-thirds of the full project. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

Joe Goodkin’s Home Page

Various Artist: Highway Prayer – A Tribute to Adam Carroll

Friday, November 11th, 2016

various_highwayprayeratributetoadamcarrollSome of Americana’s finest songwriters salute a peer

It’s one thing for a songwriter to be fêted with a tribute album at the relatively young at of 42, but to be honored by a who’s who of one’s peers speaks louder than words. And with the likes of James McMurtry, Hayes Carll and Slaid Cleaves having satchels full of terrific original material, their willingness to saddle up a favorite from Adam Carroll’s catalog is both a tributary offering and an artistic opportunity. The largely acoustic productions of Jenni Finlay and Brian T. Atkinson rightly leave the limelight on lyrics whose emotional resonance is immediate, and whose meters are so natural that they barely sound composed.

Each performer finds a natural fit to their chosen song, with the Band of Heathens’ digging a gospel groove for “Oklahoma Gypsy Shuffler” and Matt the Electrician adding anxious fingerpicking to “Old Town Rock ‘n’ Roll.” There’s two-stepping mandolin and steel as Noel McKay and Brennen Leigh sing the story of Bob, the “Karaoke Cowboy,” and Walt Wilkins explores a showman’s life in “Highway Prayer.” Carroll’s lyrics derive from fleeting moments, snapshots whose studied details conjure life stories. His narratives drop their baggage on the platform to chase expectation down the tracks, one step ahead of consequence.

Carroll slips easily between observed detail and poetic flight, framing everyday images as literary moments. He’s particularly adept at portraiture, whether it’s a colorful hustler, a rural taxi driver or a karaoke singer, he sees what you might feel, but couldn’t verbalize, capturing a person’s essence in the details of their physical being and actions. The titles draw heavily from Carroll’s first two albums, South of Town and Lookin’ Out the Screen Door, as well as 2008’s Old Town Rock ‘n’ Roll, and Carroll himself appears at CD’s end to honor “My Only Good Shirt.” It’s a sweet way to close this tribute to a much loved songwriter. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

Adam Carroll’s Home Page

Mason Summit: Gunpowder Tracks

Saturday, October 22nd, 2016

Mason_Allport_cover-1400x1400.inddSouthern California pop prodigy spreads his wings

On the cusp of adulthood (his twentieth birthday party was held October 15th at Genghis Cohen), Mason Summit’s already on his third full-length album of original music. He’s a singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist whose music brings to mind the craft of Brian Wilson and Chris Stamey, and the emotional delicacy of Elliot Smith. Working with engineer John McDuffie and a selection of top-flight L.A. studio players, Summit has fashioned an even more sophisticated version of his introspective sound, and his lyrics showcase the emotional and artistic discovery that marks the transition from adolescence to adulthood.

Summit wrestles with the onset of outside awareness (“What I’m trying to say / Is that I don’t know what to say”) and the disturbing things it can bring to light. He struggles with relationships that are out of balance, the mystery of temptation, the banalities of daily living, and – surprisingly for a teenager – mortality. His introspection gives voice to teenage thoughts that aren’t often spoken aloud, at least not within earshot of adults. “When Time Was Mine to Spend” ruminates on the heavier burdens and narrowed freedoms of adult life, and though sung in the second person, “Suede Pockets” rings with first-person break-up details.

Without a band identity to maintain, Summit is free to give each song a unique mix of instruments, and though the mood is typically pensive, the textures are varied. The music thins to guitars for “Side Street,” turns jazzy with the muted trumpet, piano and guitar of “Detour,” and gains a Nilsson-like feel on “Snakeskin Shoes and Crocodile Tears.” Summit’s put a lot of craft into the arrangements, vocabulary, meters and rhymes, using his freedom as a developing indie artist to experiment. He’s also gained experience interning with Rob Schnapf, working shows at McCabe’s ,and attending music school, all of which should multiply the opportunities for this talented singer-songwriter. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

Mason Summit’s Home Page