The Freelance Mentalists.
Tuesday, January 11, 2011
  Hand Down Your Head Tom Doobie ( Main Country 2010 Ballot Comments & Comets)
Veteran Columbus OH teen Lydia Loveless sometimes includes the
Replacements' intensely frustrated "Answering Machine" and Def
Leppard's dynamically mesmerized "Hysteria" with her punky tonk combos
deliveries, unstoppably tumbling up, down and onto life's thrilling,
killing, chilling and flat moments. Loretta Lynn's points of departure
are extended and twisted through Loveless' compactly epic,
self-written debut, The Only Man, as desperately wired sexual power
struggles zap the void in passing: "Girls suck/They suck and suck and
never get enough," wails one contender, but it's time to ricochet off
another incisive epitaph.
Drive-By Truckers' The Big To-Do is one of their best-played,
best-sung, best-recorded, best-written albums ever. Pretty much in
that order, to the credit of this self-described "lyrics-driven" band.
The music crashes through "clouds that took Daddy up to Heaven" like
angry, daredevil spirits, before discreetly sniffing sleazy, eerie
evidence of real life's solved crimes and lingering mysteries. Young
Shonna Tucker's voice, bass and country/Motown/British Invasion-fueled
original songs unstoppably testify, further sparking the catchy
crackle of unexpectedly fresh perspectives on known zones of strange
weather.
Pretty Lights is DJ/Producer Derek Vincent Smith, frequently traveling
with jazz/hip-hop drummer Adam Deitch. Smith seeded 2010 with metal
chestnut " The Final Countdown", which becomes strenuously affirmative
gospel science, right be fore J.J. Cale's original "After Midnight"
pursues Gregg Allman's "Midnight Rider" over spinning borders. Pretty
Lights' poetic distortion is no more paradoxical than the blues, as a
mutating sample on Making Up A Changing Mind spells out, "I know you
been hurt/By somebody else/I can tell by the way/You carry yourself."
Mountain Man are three young women who explore and savor dimensions
and implications of everyday imagery, in mostly a cappella
harmonies.On debut set Made The Harbor, emotions also harmonize, so
whether you hear them singing "You make my bread and my wine" or "You
make my red in my white", it sounds right. Like Emily Dickinson and
the most talented service workers, Mountain Man's true folk tradition
lies in fluidly, boldly editing the stories worth sticking to. They
cut their losses and wins into a shapely path.
Nancy McCallion's Take A Picture of Me wisely includes no Mollys
re-makes, unlike her self-titled collection. It does include several
fellow ex-Mollys, all new material and tensile vitality to brace
conversational (yet deftly compressed) eloquence, Nothing pretentious,
nothing she couldn't look somebody in the eye and say--nor anything
she'd have to look somebody in the eye and say, no overt sales
technique required. If that's not mainstream enough, oh well. Key
phrase, mebbe: "In sorrow, not despair." Some sway-alongs on the way
to refreshing your drink too, like "It's never too late to get
lucky/It's never too early to cry." Accordions, electric picking,
boots disturbing the dust a mite--missing the fiddle though.
Minton Sparks is a poet, maybe playwright, anyway increasingly drawn
to musical expressiveness of the spoken word, esp with former Dylan
touring guitarist John Jorgenson. Familiar elements and you can call
it Southern Gothic, but there's no zoning out in oh-wow morbidity,
although her characters shine in tough spots, hopping like bugs about
to be crushed. But not too soon, and they use their moment in the
light memorably (like Nancy McCallion's gal, who instructs: "Take a
picture of me", or so Sparks' canny observers hear it, as they slip
closer, closer than they intended in some cases, close as required. We
even get some high school girl's basketball team bus folk-bug
hip-hop, on the way home from this week's big game: "I can tell by
your eyes you been kissin' Mr. Wise/Say sardines/An' pork an' beans."
Yeah she's got some hooks, and some call her the Soutthern Laurie
Anderson, although for that you might get closer with Jo Carol
Pierce's Bad Girls Upset By The Truth.Yet Sparks and Pierce both lack
most of Anderson's sentimental tendencies--any (the few) angels
dropping by ate crusted with whatever's most likely up there.
Justin Townes Earle's voice smoothly paves the way for romantic
fatalism and/or squirrelly urges, currently far too restless for even
the joyful choir of suicide resolutions, on the title track of his new
album, Harlem River Blues. Diverting uptempo reveries reverberate
through boxcars, bars, beds and subway tunnel walls, while Earle
continues "punching holes in the dark", until he gets it just right.
On Los Lobos' Tin Can Trust, it seems like the narrator is on the
verge, he's some old tired guy, but made up his mind to do something,
take revenge and/or a commission, various indicators of volatility
keep rolling by or up the block, and little jolts--I know, enough with
the foreplay already, but the tension keeps getting renewed,
reinforced, and the Dead cover fits perfectly, with no crunchy granola
attached (it's all sidewalks and traffic, the whole album, and then
there's the sardonic "happy ending" history short). A cliche to say
it's a soundtrack for movies you can make up, but it really seems to
work that way, rumbling implications--if it were so definite a
storyline, would get too familiar too fast, perhaps. It is badass
urban country, obsessive as a shot glass lens.
When I first heard that familiar mid-tempo chug of Chely Wright's
Lifted Off The Ground, I thought for a moment it was gonna be too
musically straight, with pop-psychology shadows and positivity, but
the first song quickly unfolded into complex clarity, and the music is
luminous, it's all seamless, chugging those detailed lyrics right
along. Not just, "Look, this is how mainstream country could be,
incorporating this stuff we haven't talked about", but, "This is it,
this works now." I would like room for a big ol' righteous yowly slide
guitar solo in "Damn Liar", and maybe some more instrumental
kick-out-the-walls in other songs, and it seems a bit dicey that so
many of the songs are probably that voice in her head. But there's
room for interpretation, especially the last track, so nice and
sensuous and welcoming the instruments to crawl into and around the
bed she's perching on, while she addresses whomever it may concern
(mind that trace of her punchline-as-preview passing by). Liked
Merle's and Willie's latest, and some others I may comment on, but,
since they (like many others) both sport an EP's worth of keepers,
they'll all benefit from the sentiment of those who favor a return to
EPs as country albums.This set needs no such plus-size/-sign
adjustments.
John Mellencamp, No Better Than This (Hon. Mention)not nec expecting
that much,but past the first couple tracks, things got amazing pretty
quickly. Track 3 def conjures with the fiddle, which I just realized
may not be on many other tracks, but by the same token, it really is
the overall vibe, as advertised--plus the songwriting. "A Graceful
Fall", despite its fancy title, is a genuwine honky tonk classic;
could def see it on Merle's next set, with any luck. And "No One Cares
For Me At All" ("If I had to guess/It's cawse I'm spotty at best")
totally gets that side of Hank, and his studies of Jimmie and Woody
have paid off as well. "Love At First Sight" could be the pappy of
Paisley's excellent "Me Neither", albeit with a twist in the last
line; ditto the parting spark of "Easter Eve", to say the least. And
Coug Age catchiness isn't off the map either (reminds me that, just as
we might not know or care about musical differences between 1830s and
18880s, many now living are likewise 1930s & 1980s, or soon enough
will be--and indeed, long as it works)
Having written plays with novelist Lee Smith and a new book also just
about to be published around the time of this album's release,
Marshall Chapman reportedly hadn't planned to get back into making
albums, but was inspired by Tim Krekel, a compatibly idiosyncratic
music biz lifer (he contributed an intricately comfortable version of
"Version City" to The Sandinista! Project, which mad comp coutained
enough country to make a previous Scene ballot). They were set to do a
set of duets, when he was diagnosed with cancer, and died three months
later. Chapman was floored, but the completed Big Lonesome rolls on,
through many sensuous shades of blue The opening title track is a
companionably speculative duet, the only studio duet they completed
apparently (an equally fluid and compact live duet closes the album).
Then, she's left looking "Down To Mexico", staring at the distance
they were gonna travel together, to record in San Miguel. She repeats
a few lines, then it sounds like she's beginning to see the way, the
route still there, the possibilties of what they had planned, and
glimpsed together. So she gets up, starts to move, groove cautiously
at first, but persistently, gathering momentum, in the sultry
nocturnal atmosphere of the track.
And this really sets the tone, way before we get to her Hank cover:
"The silence of a falling star/Lights up the purple sky". Hank
reportedly had doubts about "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry", wondered if
he'd gotten carried away with the imagery, but Chapman wisely doesn't
try to follow his formidable vocal delivery, she keeps it more
conversational and late in the set, re-affirming what she trusts we
can feel. And she trusts the music, mostly self-written, but recorded
with Will Kimbrough and others she'd never met before. Despite having
been out of recording for so long, she does that, and the sound is
sensuous release and relief of grief in life, in living. Its aesthetic
isn't prettification (no mention of angels that I've noticed, no
balloons released over the gravesite), it's also discipline, focus,
that kind of release and relief as well.
Plus a number of connections that fall into place, like in the live
duet, she mentions how she and Tim reached a stalemate in songwriting,
took a walk and came back to find a tree lying across their path. They
took this as a good omen, and finished their song. Also a song she
wrote by herself "Falling Through The Trees", which is more about
becoming aware, and that "falling star" of Hank's and the way
"believing in" chaos, entrophy etc also implicity involves things
sometimes falling into a good (though not nec. "better") place, like
this album. That's the beginning of "Riding with Willie", where she
comes up with her own variant of Nelsonic philosophy while observing
(she's usually pretty observant) Willie and Bobbie making music on the
bus, which surely fits with (and precedes) the final duet with Tim
(they were like brother and sister, kindred spirits with long-time
spouses, which also helps the album's balancing act). They Came To
Nashville, Chapman's newly collected profiles of and conversations
with fellow pilgrims, led her to complete "Riding", re: "Bobbie and
Willie play music all night/Songs long forgotten come to light/That's
the way I like it. " Anyway, Big Lonesome's no masterpiece, but it
makes a clear, strong impression that lingers, good to listen to while
thinking about it, and vice versa, unlike a number of albums better
for one or the other.
bonus track: double bill preview:
Icelandic singer/songwriter Olof Arnalds gently nudges folk-shaded
nostalgia toward fresh fascination,via breezes from her native turf of
volcanoes, glaciers, mud, and blown-out banks. She's also at home in
several languages,while covering tropicalia pioneer Caetano Veloso's
" Maria Bethania", a tribute to his equally restless sister, and
slipping through newly beveled levels of Springsteen's "I'm On Fire",
which begins with an easy familiarity, "Hey little girl, is your daddy
home?" She also favors the homely poise of country classics like
George Jones and Tammy Wynette's "We're Not The Jet Set", traveling
with the right feel even when picking it up second hand ("We're the
Prine and DeMent set"). Cheyenne Marie Mize nurtures lines like "I
knew we would see/It was all for the best", in a post-Americana ghost
town of explosive implications. She also grows narrative from
repetition, like Willie Nelson on a good night. That's where the
resemblance ends, fortunately.
 
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