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.