Jen Cass, Accidental Pilgrimage
The gentle folk-rock sound of Jen Cass's new CD makes an effective contrast with her sometimes pointed lyrics. It's Cass's most political album, containing several protest songs (one is about Phil Ochs) along with some new historical and slice-of-life sketches of the type she's always been good at, and a few straight-ahead love songs.
Not surprisingly, the latter are a little less interesting. But the CD as a whole casts a soft, steady spell under which the plainspoken lyrics can work subtle magic. "In every church another Pharisee / Tells us 'We are right, they're wrong / I give you sin and guilt / And Judgment Day, now let us pray, / And let us join the choir in song.'"
Religious imagery is everywhere in these songs. In "Forever Damned" a young protagonist makes a bad choice in love and now must live with some unnamed but terrible consequence; yet she's defiant: "Still…I'd choose the apple / Over every other taste / And I would savor that sweet freedom / Letting Eden go to waste." It's the never-ending struggle between what feels right and what is right that gives Cass's songs, even the gentlest of them, their power.
Finian McKean, Shades Are Drawn
Lo-fi urban folkie Finian McKean's new CD is a collection of fashionably gloomy but original-sounding songs. Like J. J. Cale he records his resigned vocals deep in the mix so you have to lean forward to listen. Beatle-esque melodies tickle the ear; sixties-style guitar rock energy ("black hole," "small request") leavens the sadness; and quirky writing ("little beggar," "where no one wants me," and an unnamed extra song at the end) helps make the whole claustrophobic enterprise fun. You can just imagine him holed up in Red Hook grousing about how no one comes to visit him because there's no subway in the area, while mixing his rock, country and folk sounds into a gritty, citified stew. This forty-minute Brooklyn howl should put McKean and his musical neighborhood on the hipster map, if not the MTA's.
Jake Stigers, Comin' Back Again
This has been out for a couple of years now, but that's a short time in indie terms, and a CD this good deserves time to build. In fact it's a good example of why new, original artists need to go the indie route. With his pedigree (he's popster-turned-jazzman Curtis's brother) and talent, Jake Stigers might be expected to have had a shot at a major label record deal. But, whether by necessity or choice, he's gone the indie route and is probably better off for it.
The CD has sold over 5,000 copies and carried Stigers through hundreds of tour dates. Based on mere four-digit sales it would have long since vanished from sight on a major label, and writers like me probably wouldn't have heard of it, received review copies, and been able to recommend it.
I can't give you much on Stigers's bio or tour dates because his website has an annoying Flash introduction that resizes my browser window. This is a big turn-off. Fortunately you don't need the official website – you can listen to extended samples at CD Baby.
The opening track, "Do You Feel High," with its fuzzed out guitars, sounds a bit like a sped up Steve Miller song with an unexpected change in elevation during the chorus. "Another Negotiation" is a short and sweet high-energy rocker, with a strange, quiet little coda that leads into the Beatle-esque ballad "Only Wanna Be With You," which is where the heart and soul of the album begins. "We Don't Need Anybody" returns to the hard rock tip but in a soul-infused Southern rock vein, like Lynyrd Skynyrd filtered through Elton John. "Comin' Back Again" features crying guitars, as in an Eric Clapton or Strawbs soft-rock ballad, cushioning another timeless-sounding melody.
"Marlena" is a highlight, a startlingly groovy neo-soul tune sung in a fluid falsetto, and the CD closes with "That Ain't Livin'," another hard driving southern-soul rocker. Stigers's solid songwriting and his fine voice and band keep the whole thing on course. Musical comparisons aside, this CD is a whole lot of fun, and isn't that the main point of rock anyway?
This seems to be my month to discover famous musicians' brothers going successfully in different directions – in my last column I reviewed Zack Hexum's new CD – but more importantly, it seems to be a year for good, well-written new pop and rock CDs. I don't envy reviewers who have to cover major label releases in those genres. Right here is where it's at.
OUT AND ABOUT: Mala Waldron appears live as part of my Soul of the Blues series in Brooklyn NY next Thursday, June 8, and Scott Weis performs at the next show, this one at Cornelia Street Cafe, NYC, on the 28th… Katell Keineg makes a couple of NYC and LA appearances this month. I plan to be at the NYC shows at Joe's Pub on the 20th and the Living Room on the 30th.
Come on out and introduce yourself. (Not while Katell's playing, though, or I'll punch you.) I'll be the one with the beatific, rapt look. But come to think of it, that won't work – everyone else in the audience will have the same glazed, worshipful expression. Anyway, look for a profile of Katell in the New York Times Magazine at the end of June.