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INDIE ROUND-UP for September 8 2005

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This week I focus on the most recent releases from two artists I will go out of my way to see. Not that I really have to go out of my way; both have performed this past year at the intimate Living Room right here in New York City. One’s a Texan and as American as they come, the other a European citizen of the world. One has a dark, grouchy rootsiness, the other an ethereally passionate one. Both have had major label contracts in the past…but that was then. They sound very different, but each exemplifies why music is such a large and essential part of my life.

INDIE ROUND-UP for September 8 2005

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Ray Wylie Hubbard, Delirium Tremolos

Ray Wylie Hubbard gained notoriety during the dying days of the Nixon administration when his parody “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother” became an outlaw anthem for Jerry Jeff Walker. Then he seemed to mostly disappear.

After a period of personal problems and lack of musical success, Hubbard rejuvenated his recording career in the 1990s and really hit his stride with 1999’s Crusades of the Restless Knights, which established him as a major voice on the Americana scene. His deep-blue folk-rock songs and husky, lived-in singing voice (gone scratchier with age) puts one in mind of Johnny Cash’s late recordings and rank him in the top tier of Americana with the likes of Jim Lauderdale, Gillian Welch and Greg Brown. Uncharacteristically, Hubbard’s latest CD is mostly covers, which disappointed me at first, but after several listens I like it very much, if in a slightly different way. In Hubbard’s own songs, even the funnier or lighter ones, there’s an intensity of focus and a not always faint pall of sadness. In some of these covers, though the latter is present as ever, there’s less of the former.

That’s not to say Hubbard doesn’t fully inhabit the songs he covers. Eliza Gilkyson’s “The Beauty Way” gains a richness of spirit from his straightforward, gravel-road delivery. “Rock and Roll Gypsies” has lyrics too awkward to light up its heartland-simple melody, while Hubbard’s own “Dallas After Midnight,” also simple in structure, is a textbook example of spare, evocative ballad writing. Its tale of a conscience-stricken robber is of a piece, in mood, with the plain and effective “Torn In Two,” by producer Gurf Morlix, who plays marvelous guitar (steel and otherwise) and bass on the album. “Drivin’ Wheel,” another cover, is a bit too slow and boring for my taste until the repeated chorus at the end is rescued by groovy backing vocals by Patty Griffin. The CD picks right up again with a rousing rendition of the Woody Guthrie gospel lyric “This Mornin’ I Am Born Again,” set to music by Slaid Cleaves, who, along with Griffin, Gilkyson and Bob Schneider, contributes vocals to the choir.

“Dust of the Chase” is an iconic minor-key Hubbard outlaw poem:

Patience is a virtue that I don’t possess
And I can’t deny that heaven lies beneath a cotton dress
How small a part of time we share till we hear the sound of wings
I am lost in the dust of the chase that my life brings

He turns the Elmore James blues “Roll and I Tumble” into a throbbing tribal wail of despair, but finds some redemption in his own “Cooler-N-Hell”:

A pack of Chesterfields, sunglasses and a suit
A half pint of gin and a gold tooth
Lightnin’ Hopkins and a pentatonic scale
Some things here under heaven are just cooler-n-hell…
Yeah, some of this stuff down here is just cooler-n-hell.

If I were to add my own verse to “Cooler-N-Hell” it would include Ray Wylie. He closes the CD by chanting an eight-minute, slowed-down version of James McMurtry’s novelistic “Choctaw Bingo,” about a bunch of characters heading for one hell of a family reunion. Music may have started as a mnemonic device or a means of communicating danger, but Ray Wylie Hubbard’s songs – even those he chooses to cover – remind us that what it does now – no matter how hard we try to tear ourselves apart – is make us all one big family.

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Katell Keineg, High July

Katell Keineg would be in my verse of “Cooler-N-Hell” too, but an icier cool. Though she’s a warm and giving performer (and decidedly disorganized on stage – it’s part of her charm), her voice, while it has its own peculiar beauty, is not usually sweet or even conventionally pretty. It surrounds or punches you, the combined keen of all the bereft mothers and disappointed girlfriends who have ever lived. And in spite of all the sharp sadness she musters, her most memorable songs are often uplifting, happy, even funny. The joyous “One Hell of a Life,” from the Jet album, is the biggest crowd-pleaser at her shows:

Don’t go writing on my grave
I’ve said it all before the end…
When I’m dead, please don’t philosophize
Or feel regret, just remember me when I said
I had one hell of a life, one hell of a life,
I had one hell of a life.

Recently Katell re-released her two classic 1990’s Elektra albums herself. But as for new work, she had, until this year, released only an EP and a three-song CD single (reviewed by me here and here). High July, her first full-length CD of the new millenium, starts appropriately with the eerily beautiful “What’s The Only Thing Worse Than The End of Time?”:

I was born in millenium tension
It’s all gone now…

I described her as a citizen of the world, but she really inhabits the whole Universe, with songs inspired by cosmology (“Waiting For the Weight of Space,” from the earlier EP), history and art (“Brother of the Brush,” Jet‘s “Ole, Conquistador”) and even politics (the delightful, uncharacteristically straight-ahead rocker “Shaking the Disease”) as well as love and relationships. Keineg’s lyrical thinking is deep and complex, her melodies hummable, frequently memorable and brilliantly constructed of tension and release. A common pattern is to divide a long song into a soft, ballady section and a heavier, two-chord rave-up section, as with “High Marks” and “On Yer Way.” In her hands such devices give the music signficance and weight well beyond that the commonplace pop ingredients she also uses.

“Beautiful Day” starts as a lovely, soft pop tune with an unleavened positivity that at first seems something of a departure for Keineg, but then the bauble becomes vaguely sinister in an extended, philosophical bridge; doubled vocals tracks and small suggestions of minor chords complete the transformation. “Captain (Steal This Riff)” is a tense, feathery anthem that evokes the spirit of David Bowie’s “Heroes” but ends with a startled cry of “Oh my God.”

“Seven League Boots,” which includes Susan McKeown and Natalie Merchant on vocals during the rip-roaring chorus, is like a miniature, aural Fellini movie, though I can’t figure out what it’s about – Keineg’s strange vocal quality and slightly awkward accent make the lyrics hard to understand on this song among others, and I can’t find the lyrics published anywhere.

The album is her most uneven work to date, and three of the best songs have appeared before. Still it’s a thought-provoking collection with quite a few high points and several must-have songs. For the Katell neophyte, I’d recommend first checking out her debut, O seasons O castles, and then Jet. (Longer excerpts than Amazon.com provides can be heard here at CD Baby (where, incidentally, you can purchase High July for considerably less than the “import” price you’ll pay at Amazon.com).

Katell performs mostly in Ireland, where she makes her home, and once or twice a year in New York City where she’s spent considerable time as well – in fact, the cover photographs are of Coney Island. If you’re ever anywhere near either of those places, look up whether she’s playing. It will be worth going out of your way. And then you can join the community of Katell fans. We recognize each other by the beatific expressions on our faces.

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About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is an Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. He writes the blog Park Odyssey, for which he is visiting and blogging every park in New York City—over a thousand of them. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. By night he's a working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.