Thursday, March 03, 2011

Brown Recluse: Evening Tapestry

Brown Recluse
Evening Tapestry
Rating: 3.7/5.0
Label: Slumberland Records

It took Brown Recluse about five years since their formation to release their first full length - practically a lifetime in these days of home studios and computer programs that can turn almost any doof into a poor man's Steve Albini. A pair of brief-but-promising EPs, Black Sunday and The Soft Skin, hinted at what the Philadelphia-based band was capable of, generating a bit of local buzz while, between those releases, the group eventually expanded from the duo of Timothy Meskers and Mark Saddlemire to include several more members. Whether it's categorized as indie-pop, chamber-pop, dream-pop, psych-pop or whatever-pop, the group's debut effort, Evening Tapestry, is a wonderfully crafted, instrumentally layered album that suggests its long gestation period was well worth it.

Perhaps the record's most noticeable trait is that it doesn't exhibit any of the flaws sometimes associated with debut albums; there are no painfully juvenile lyrics, ignoble musical fuckups or streams of influence-imitating garbage. The care that went into making these songs sound a certain way is evident. Keyboards, Farfisa organ and trumpet are used liberally throughout; on opening track "Hobble To Your Tomb," they're set to a crawl and used to shape the song's fatalistic overtones, then sped up to a jaunty bounce on "Impressions of a City Morning" and "Golden Sun." Meskers' vocals practically float above the songs' arrangements, his voice frequently taking on a hazy, dreamlike quality, especially on "Statue Garden," "Wooden Fingers" and "At Last." Though Evening Tapestry's overarching style isn't exactly without precedent - shades of Stuart Murdoch sometimes creep into Meskers' delivery, and the way the instruments blend together are reminiscent of many things Elephant 6, especially the Olivia Tremor Control - the songs are quirky and catchy enough for that to be forgiven.

Though the album's overall vibe is primarily airy and breezy, its lyrics are quite the opposite. Tucked within these 11 pop songs are references to physical decay, "mangled flesh," bruises and bleeding - that's just the first track - as well as an arm cut on a fencepost and the resulting smears of blood. In other songs, Meskers' vocals focus heavily on weather systems and local geography, evoking an environment of city lights, taxies, summer rain and wind, crumbling statues and monuments, buses and nighttime descending on a hometown. It's a nice trick the way the singer's vocals contrast with the arrangements; indeed, this effect is so subtle that listeners might not realize they're hearing a pretty nihilistic song about being marched to a tomb until it's already lodged itself in the brain.

Evening Tapestry occasionally falters when its sound becomes too uniform - a nagging sense of redundancy lingers on both "Summer Showers" and "Paisley Tears" - but mostly it's a tight, concise album full of clever musical and lyrical ideas that are usually executed quite well without any indie pretensions or indulgences. The band took their time in releasing it, and for the better, but here's hoping the next full length comes along sooner than 2016.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

The Rural Alberta Advantage: Departing

The Rural Alberta Advantage
Rating: 3.5/5.0
Label: Saddle Creek Records

Departing will sound immediately familiar to anyone who's heard Hometowns, the 2009 wounded-hearts-and-small-towns album from Canadian indie-folk trio the Rural Alberta Advantage. Lead singer and primary lyricist Nils Edenloff, offering the type of assessment that will shape how listeners and critics view the album for years, has described Departing as Hometowns' companion piece. He's not kidding, as even upon first listen the similarities are obvious, both in how the album sounds - acoustically-minded but occasionally explosive - and more so in the imagery that links the album to its predecessor: weather, ghosts, bones, Great White North geography, heartbreaks and promises of fidelity can be found throughout the record.

For listeners it's a simple equation: those who got hooked on the band via Hometowns will likely get hooked a little more with Departing, while dissenters - maybe those still wondering just where the bass is or who find Edenloff's nasal vocals too abrasive - probably won't be impressed. It's this latter group's loss, though, as throughout the album the RAA mostly succeed by following this tightly-honed blueprint. The band can be contemplative and fatalistic: ; on album opener "Two Lovers," acoustic guitar and a graceful melody accentuate the track's dark, death-obsessed exterior. It's a love song, of sorts, as Edenloff says, "And you will die and become a ghost/ And haunt me until my pulse also slows." Album closer "Good Night" is likewise restrained, the dual vocals of Edenloff and Amy Cole complementing the song's panoramic landscape and gentle percussion; it also has all the markings of a concert closer, if only the hipster indie crowd in the back by the bar just wouldn't talk so loud. As they did on Hometowns with "Luciana" and "The Dethbridge in Lethbridge," the RAA mix in several rock songs amidst all the folksy balladry; "Muscle Relaxants," "Stamp" and "Tornado '87" add muscle and volume to the album without making it any less cohesive.

It's not accurate to dismiss the album as a complete retread of Hometowns, however, as it does sporadically reveal a subtle evolution in the band's sound. Paul Banwatt's drumming is less up-front in the mix - though it's front-and-center on "Under the Knife" - an approach that makes the songs' instrumentation sound more balanced, if slightly less unique, on "The Breakup" and "Barnes' Yard." Edenloff's vocals are generally more refined and polished but still remain expressive and unconventional; as a singer he knows how to bend and phrase his words to wring out the emotions, particularly on "North Star" and "Coldest Days."

Departing's main drawback is that it's thematically repetitive: the album's first image is that of two lovers in an embrace - a recurring motif that was all over Hometowns and appears on at least four other songs this time around - while most of the album is also cluttered with references to beating hearts (not of the gothic variety) and all-conquering, capital-L Love. True, some artists have made careers out of constantly mining this topic, and no one seemed to mind when Bethany Cosentino wrote the same song 12 times on Crazy for You, but sometimes Edenloff's lyrics feel too narrow, too insular in their scope. Still, the album is highly listenable and as a continuation of Hometowns is usually spot on. The RAA don't break new musical ground on Departing, but it's a fine release from a band whose potential for crafting a masterpiece, and soon, is already apparent.

by Eric Dennis

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Kurt Wagner and Cortney Tidwell present KORT: Invariable Heartache

Kurt Wagner and Cortney Tidwell present KORT
Invariable Heartache
Rating: 3.5/5.0
Label: City Slang

If all covers albums sounded this good, they'd likely lose their stigma of being vanity projects or the byproducts of a band just fucking around because it's clean out of new material. A collaboration between Lambchop's Kurt Wagner and singer-songwriter Cortney Tidwell under the cutely-dubbed KORT moniker, Invariable Heartache is a respectfully understated homage to the Nashville-based Chart Records label. For Tidwell, the songs are literally part of her family's history; her grandfather, Slim Williamson, ran the label, her father handled its A&R and her mother was part of the label's artist roster. For Wagner, it's a chance to sing homespun lyrics that aren't coated in ambiguity; enjoy the simplicity of something like, "I'm blue as a bluebird/ With no song to sing," because stuff like that doesn't come out of Wagner's mouth all that often.

Invariable Heartache very well could have been a train wreck, with Tidwell's personal connections to the label causing the album to come across as overly worshipful and Wagner's "unique" vocals making the songs sound like little more than the latest Lambchop record. But for the most part the wheels stay on and there are no disasters and very few missteps among the 12 songs. The album favors country music's depressive side - plenty of lonesome, boozy, desperate, lovesick, jilted and otherwise distraught lovers here - and it's on such ballads like "Incredibly Lonely," "Eyes Look Away" and "She Came Around Last Night" where the two singers' contrasting voices (hers is clean, pure and pitch-perfect; Wagner's is...not) mesh well together. Tidwell brings a wounded-country-heart believability to the several songs she solos on, especially "He's Only a Memory Away," "I Can't Sleep With You" and the album-closing, grand weeper "Who's Gonna Love Me Now," though her vocals on "Yours Forever" lay on the woe-is-me misery too thickly. The duo's timing and the album's pace are integral, as both artists sprinkle in up-tempo, cheerful and sometimes humorous moments, particularly on "Let's Think About Where We're Going" - where a man and woman each vow to basically forget about the other's sordid pasts, sexual perversions and rampant promiscuity - and "Penetration," whose somewhat-bizarre arrangement makes it the oddest song included. It is not, as some may have hoped, a Stooges cover.

One obvious advantage Tidwell and Wagner have in reworking the songs on Invariable Heartache is that none of them are standards. Aside from perhaps "Picking Wild Mountain Berries," which treasured icon/butt-of-the-joke Conway Twitty made semi-famous, very little here will be familiar to listeners whose interest in country music doesn't extend past the late greats or today's current plague of pickup-truck-and-whiskey poseurs. The songs' obscurity makes it easy for a listener to not have any preconceived notions about what they "should" sound like; knowledge of the source material isn't a prerequisite to enjoying the album either.

Invariable Heartache is simply a consistently strong selection of cover songs that speaks to the quality of the material Chart Records released throughout the 1960s. A little bit of legwork to track down the label's originals comes highly recommended.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Drive-By Truckers: Go-Go Boots

Drive-By Truckers
Go-Go Boots
Rating: 3.7/5.0
Label: ATO Records

Whether or not Drive-By Truckers will ever manage to surpass 2001's Southern Rock Opera - considered the band's high-water mark, as well as one of alt-country's signature records - remains to be seen, but in almost every release since that double album they've managed to come damn close. Aside from their occasionally clumsy debut, Gangstabilly, Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley and a revolving cast of cohorts haven't released a bad album yet; few artists with a comparable volume of output in any genre can make that claim. Age hasn't caused the band to settle into a predictable pattern either; previous album The Big To-Do found the band successfully embracing classic rock, leading to some of the most positive reviews of their career.

Expect this general Truckers love-fest to continue with Go-Go Boots, an album that is, generally, the group's most introspective record to date. It's not a quiet album by any means - and parts of it are reminiscent of To-Do, especially the embers of electric guitar that burn on "Ray's Automatic Weapon" and "Used To Be a Cop" - but it's definitely not a, ahem, Southern rock opera, either. There's a Muscle Shoals-meets-Hoosier-blues feel to several songs, especially in the guitar work of the title song - about as sleazy and sordid a song Hood has written, complete with a cheating, murder-arranging man of God and his go-go boot-wearing mistress - and "The Thanksgiving Filter," a mostly bemused, if somewhat cynical, look at a family's numerous eccentricities ("You wonder why I drink and curse the holidays/ Blessed be my family from 300 miles away," Hood deadpans as the song closes). A large chunk of the album is acoustic-oriented with its instrumentation arranged in clean, straight lines; this approach almost always works, especially in "Assholes" - where Hood's vocal delivery coincidentally sounds a whole lot like Jeff Tweedy - and in "Dancin' Ricky," where Shonna Tucker religiously drops the "g" off words (somethin'/dancin'/countin'/spinnin'/actin') like any self-respecting twangy country singer should. Mike Cooley, sounding as much like a Statler Brother as Don Reid ever did, takes lead vocal on "The Weakest Man" and "Cartoon Gold," two plainspoken, traditional country tunes just begging for a Grand Ole Opry airing circa about 50 years ago.

But it's the murder songs that make Go-Go Boots worth its hour-plus running time. As self-contained narratives, the title song, "The Fireplace Poker" and "Pulaski" are flawless, with each song fleshed out with the kinds of articulate, lyrical details that give these songs believability. The manner in which the band tells these tales is similarly engaging and often quite contrasting. In "The Fireplace Poker," Hood practically gives a step-by-step account of the preacher's murder plot, whereas in "Go-Go Boots" he leaves the story to the reader's imagination and clams up like one of his villains might, saying only that, "it took only a little bit of cash and the deed was done." Cooley gives even fewer details in "Pulaski," whose final, and most lasting, image is that of a funeral procession for, presumably, the dead local girl for whom California once "seemed like heaven."

A few down moments on the album prevent it from being a Truckers masterpiece; Tucker's vocals are too bombastic for the tender balladry of the Eddie Hinton song "Where's Eddie," and the album ends with a dull, timid whimper via "Mercy Buckets." But its strengths more than make up for these rare weaknesses, and though Go-Go Boots isn't perfect, like almost every album the band has released since 2001, it's loaded with good stuff and doesn't get consumed by the broad shadow that Southern Rock Opera casts.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Daniel Martin Moore: In the Cool of the Day

Daniel Martin Moore
In the Cool of the Day
Rating: 2.3/5.0
Label: Sub Pop

In the Cool of the Day is primarily a collection of old American spirituals and gospel songs. Those few readers who actually have an interest in that stuff and are still reading already know that it's difficult to both record definitive versions of these songs and to make them resonate with a broad audience. For more than a few listeners, such songs might seem well past their expiration date, as neither their home-spun, quaint arrangements nor their frequently bizarre iconography are readily accessible in these hyper-modern times. Musicians of various calibers have attempted to make such songs matter to contemporary listeners and failed miserably; even masters like Cash and Dylan have periodically struggled to breathe new life into these songs.

Little surprise, then, that Daniel Martin Moore's latest album is merely serviceable; it won't launch a renewed interest in the music of this country's past, but to be fair that likely was never Moore's intention anyway. Cool is, quite simply, a politely conservative and almost immediately forgettable album in which the artist covers a few traditional songs, provides new lyrics to another and offers several new songs in a traditional vein. Anyone familiar with either Stray Age or Dear Companion will know what to expect here, as Moore never really deviates from those previous albums' blend of folk and Americana, as both he and his backing band utilize guitar, banjo, mandolin, violin and other instruments to keep these songs well within a definite comfort zone. The album's greatest strengths can be found in the four songs written by Moore - "All Ye Tenderhearted," "O My Soul," "Lay Down Your Lonesome Burden" and "Set Things Aright" - all of which speak to his talents as a lyricist and his ability to draw from both the themes and styles of the past without simply mimicking them (even if the song titles border on being a little too derivative).

But Cool is nevertheless bland and lifeless, nondescript in both its vocals and instrumentals and respectful of the source material to a fault. It's a trap that claims its fair share of victims - how does one adequately interpret these songs without making them sound overly reverential? - and it snares Moore throughout much of the album. The singer adds new lyrics to the Grayson/Whittier composition "Dark Road," a needless update on a song that doesn't really need to be tampered with. And so we're essentially called to worship at the altar of our musical heritage, as Moore and company academically perform oft-covered traditionals like "In the Garden," "Closer Walk with Thee" and "Up Above My Head" as well as the fairly obscure "It Is Well With My Soul;" dating from sometime in the 1880s, it's the oldest song included on Cool.

The album's prospects brighten, however briefly, with Moore's version of fellow Kentuckian Jean Ritchie's "Cool of the Day." It's a rare standout moment on an album whose greatest sin might be its ordinariness. No sane listener expects Moore to wildly reinvent these songs, but some sense of adventure would have counted for a lot here. Instead, we're left with an album that aids in the cultural preservation of old songs, and little else.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Broken Records: Let Me Come Home

Broken Records
Let Me Come Home
Rating: 2.0/50
Label: 4AD

So what does over-the-top emotional pleading mixed with deadly serious earnestness sound like? A lot like Let Me Come Home, the latest album from Scottish band Broken Records. In much the same way as their debut effort Until the Earth Begins to Part, super-heavy feelings of dread and despair are laid on pretty thick in both Jamie Sutherland's vocals and the group's arena-ready instrumentals, but rarely are they remotely believable. That might sound a bit callous, as the group spends Home pouring its guts out and doing its damnedest to make its songs sound grave and important, but the record is too overblown and dramatic for its own good. If subtlety in music is your thing, best to stay away from this one.

A listener can often tell a lot about an album by its song titles; in Home's case, track names like "A Darkness Rises Up," "I Used To Dream" and "You Know You're Not Dead" make the record's intentions painfully obvious. It's dark out there in the cruel, cruel world, man, and Broken Records wants you to know it, song after song. Thus the lyrics speak of tired bodies, heavy hearts, hometown ghosts and the ubiquitous one true love. And that's just the first song. Elsewhere there are concerns about insomnia, unemployment, death, mental decline, various methods of burial and virtually all other topics reminiscent of a twentysomething intoxicated on existentialism. As a vocalist Sutherland is too often prone to bouts of grandiose theatricality; he sometimes sings in a falsetto on both "The Motorcycle Boy Reigns" and "You Know You're Not Dead" and bellows almost the rest of the time, particularly on "A Leaving Song" and "Modern Worksong." One is almost tempted to dismiss these exaggerated vocals as intentionally overdramatic, but clearly that wasn't the aim here. The arrangements aren't unique or varied enough to either fit with or compensate for Sutherland's vocal approach; instead, the band repeatedly opts for a mighty big indie rock sound and even bigger finishes that soon become predictable and tedious.

Now, the nice section. Good things happen when both Sutherland and the band reign in their excesses and show even the slightest bit of restraint. The bleakness of "Dia dos Namorados!" is plausible, as Sutherland asks to be buried in "the shallow soil/ The filth and grime." His vocals are measured and understated, while the song's arrangement is practically skeletal compared to most of Home. "I Used To Dream" ends not with a bang but with a whimper, and for the better; the song is wonderfully sparse and well-written, its keyboards and light touches of strings complementing Sutherland's almost-hushed vocals. But such moments are rare, and ultimately the album suffocates under the weight of its lyrical melodrama and musical indulgences.

On the strength of these two tracks as well as album closer "Home," it's possible that Broken Records might be capable of crafting a more nuanced, heartfelt record before long. The emotions in Home's songs just might be the real deal, but they're couched in so many layers of verbal and auditory bombast that the album too frequently comes across like an emotional basketcase crying fake tears while the world checks it out, yawns and then goes about its business.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Lucinda Williams: Sweet Old World

Lucinda Williams
Sweet Old World

Revisit is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that now deserve a second look.

In the early 1990s, Lucinda Williams was a mostly unknown country-folk singer/songwriter, her self-titled 1988 album garnering enthusiastic reviews from critics and fellow musicians but only modest commercial attention. It took a damn-near-perfect album, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (1998), to gain Williams a much larger fan base and establish her as one of music's leading lyricists. After Car Wheels, the singer faced a lifetime of critical hyperbole - even being inaccurately defined as the "female Bob Dylan" - and every album that followed would inevitably be judged against the mighty weight of that masterpiece.

All of which gives Sweet Old World a unique position in the musician's discography. It marks the final album in which Williams would be largely free of preconceived expectations from both critics and fans; it's also likely to be the last album in which the musician could work without facing comparisons to Car Wheels. It received consistently favorable reviews upon its release in 1992, though a complaint that continues to plague the artist - the amount of time it takes her to release a new record - can be found in some of these reviews. It's around the time of Sweet Old World that Williams gained a reputation as a truculent perfectionist in the studio; indeed, it would take another six years before its follow-up album was released.

The album is essentially split between tragic character studies - the one exception, "Little Angel, Little Brother," is commonly mistaken as a song about death, owing largely to its funereal arrangement and slow vocals - and relationship songs that emphasize specific details over grandiose, generalized statements about Love. In both cases the album is somewhat inconsistent, and pieces of it haven't aged particularly well. Still, Sweet Old World does contain two of Williams' finest written suicide songs: the title song and "PiƱeola." Complete opposites in terms of execution - one is a tear-soaked ballad, the other mixes the blues with southern rock - both songs find Williams using specific images like the "sound of a midnight train," "dancing with no shoes," the cemetery in which Sonny is buried, a mourner dropping a "handful of dust" on a grave and parents removing blood-soaked sheets to make both songs and their sentiments tangible. We don't personally know the person or people she's singing about, but we almost feel like we do.

In a similar manner, both "Six Blocks Away" and "Memphis Pearl" are precise depictions of two people whose lives didn't turn out as they'd planned, though the subject of "Memphis Pearl" - a once-married and now presumably single mother whose eyes offer only a "vacant stare" - seems to be in a far more precarious situation than the lovesick fellow with the "regular job" and a "roof over his head and food to eat" in "Six Blocks Away." But Williams does occasionally falter. The lyrics to "He Never Got Enough Love" read like a bad Nebraska-era Springsteen parody, its central figure ultimately pulling his own Johnny 99 by shooting someone in a liquor store; the song's impact and believability are completely deadened by the excessively banal reason Williams gives for the man's actions (read the song title; if only it were that simple).

Sweet Old World is not purely dark, however. As she would on every album from Car Wheels to the present, Williams devotes plenty of disc space to that most frequent of song topics. The cynicism and dysfunction chronicled in her catalog starting with Car Wheels are mostly absent here, as she instead includes love songs that range from affectionate to raunchy. True there are some weepers - most notably "Sidewalks of the City," where Williams tracks someone's movements through a city of early afternoon boozers, bums and "crumbling buildings and graffiti" - but the love songs here are generally affectionate. There is an underlying sadness in the departure about to take place in "Something about What Happens When We Talk," but it's mixed with a bit of hope and nostalgia, while "Prove My Love" is a straightforward, unadorned song about fidelity and is notably free of Williams' sometimes-caustic tongue. Sometimes Sweet Old World is even a little dirty - on " Lines Around Your Eyes" and more so on "Hot Blood," a song of old folk music puns and sexual innuendo - but never do these songs approach the levels of bitterness and betrayal that would surface on Williams' later records.

Lucinda Williams was by no means a novice when she recorded Sweet Old World, but in retrospect it probably was the last time listeners didn't have preconceived notions about who she was or what her songs should sound like. Free of such expectations, Williams created an album that, though not perfect, has a number of remarkable songs and deserves some of the spotlight usually reserved for Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.