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Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Snider, Tillis, Hammond Jr.

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Todd Snider, Peace, Love and Anarchy

The new disc by Todd Snider, heir apparent to John Prine's corner of the Americana music universe, is billed as "a Set of Rarities, B-Sides and Demos." But since Snider himself is a rarity and a b-side, what's the diff?

Normally Snider's loose, jagged sound is more or less carefully built up in the studio. Here it's mostly left raw. Many of the tracks have just guitar and vocals. A couple are early versions of songs that later got fancier production; others are true rarities, or items that slipped through the cracks. But each one has at least one pearl of value inside. In fact, this CD has transformed me from a lukewarm Todd Snider fan into a big Todd Snider fan. It reminds me of when I first heard Roseanne Cash's 10-Song Demo, which revealed something more fundamental to me about the artist's sensibility than I had heard in polished studio recordings.

"Polished" isn't a word one is inclined to use in the same sentence as "Todd Snider," and that's as it should be. This rough-edged set has spare rockers ("Barbie Doll," "Cheatham Street Warehouse,") country blues ("Deja Blues"), love songs ("Missing You," "Feel Like I'm Falling In Love,"), half tongue-in-cheek country numbers inspired by Prine or Jerry Jeff Walker ("Old Friend," "Combover Blues"), and even a gospel-soul tune "I Will Not Go Hungry." "Some Things Are" could be a lost Garcia-Hunter number.

The title track from the 2004 release East Nashville Skyline didn't make it onto that CD. Now we have it:

"Something good comes along / Then it's gone / Kind of like Phoenix Radio / We used to listen, and where did it go / It went off of the air so that more Sheryl Crow could come on." Harsh. But – yeah.

The spoken-word "From A Rooftop" has more about the singer's love affair with East Nashville; we all have an East Nashville, wherever we may live. "Our skyline – it ain't very high. But we love it." Me too, Todd, me too. I feel the same way about Brooklyn. At least for now.

"Old Friend, Old Friend / God knows where we're goin' / I guess half the fun's not knowing where we'll wind up in the end."

Pam Tillis, Rhinestoned

Now it's time for polished.

On Pam Tillis's first CD for Stellar Cat, her new, personal label, the country star, working with co-producers Matt Spicher and the legendary Gary Nicholson, has exercised complete creative control. The result is a worthy follow-up to It's All Relative, her 2002 tribute to her father, Mel Tillis. The new disc sounds gorgeous but not overdone, with good songs. Though they are by a variety of songwriters, they all somehow sound as if they were written specifically for Tillis's creamy soprano. That's a tribute not only to the songwriters but also to the singer's assured and always honest delivery.

A lot of Nashville CDs contain only a couple of good songs, with the rest there just for the friends and crew of the label or the singer to make some money from writing credits. On this CD the proportion is reversed, with only a few forgettable tracks getting in the way of the good stuff. The Dixieland-inspired Crazy By Myself (by Matraca Berg) and the spirited, spiritual "Over My Head," which features Jim Hoke on pennywhistle, are both heart-lighteners. Gloomy heartbreak checks in with Leslie Satcher's "Something Burning Out," but "Train Without A Whistle" and the masterful "Someone Somewhere Tonight" better show off Tillis's ability to pull the heartstrings without seeming manipulative.

The intense story-song "Bettin' Money On Love" with its recited verses is unusual for Tillis, but she pulls it off with aplomb. "Band in the Window" is an obvious but sprightly tribute to the obscure bands who play the honky-tonk bars right in the shadow of the Opry. In the sweet "Down By the Water" Tillis comes close to the 1970s "hippie country" vibe which, according to her notes, she wanted to suggest with this album. Mostly the CD doesn't do that. What it does, though, is give us some real country music, unlike some of the other styles the singer has tried on over the years. The modern (slick, if you will) production remains tasteful, not getting in the way of the singer or the songs. And it holds together as an album – you can listen to and enjoy the whole thing through.

Recommended for country fans and all lovers of delicious singing.

Albert Hammond, Jr., Yours To Keep

The guitarist and singer/songwriter Albert Hammond, Jr., best known as a member of The Strokes, released his first solo CD last Fall in the U.K. It's out now in North America and definitely worth a listen.

Not Strokes-like, Hammond's pastel-pop songs and arrangements dab together several strains of pop-rock into a landscape that's bright and extremely accessible, yet original enough to be an interesting place to spend some quality time. He and his team – producer Greg Lattimer and engineer Gus Oberg, plus a number of guest artists including Sean Lennon – crunch together strains of Sgt. Pepper, Tommy James, 70s glam, 80s precision, and the chamber pop of the 90s and today.

Hammond's lead vocals are modest but confident, and he has full-fledged songwriting skills. The lyrics don't make much sense, but it doesn't matter at all, because the drama and the pleasure are in the music. When you do pay attention to the lyrics, they seem to wink at you, and you feel that you're in on a joke. From "Hard To Live In The City":

There's something about you that I couldn't tell
And you were always crazy
And I don't like that
There's something about you that I knew so well
To all those questions I have no answers
I wish that I could sit in the sun

Me too, Albert, me too.

Like the Animators, but a little more lighthearted and poppy, Hammond proves that the artistic integrity of adult rock and pop is as strong as ever, with new generations of musicians continuing to expand the field. It's hard to pick favorite songs here, but a few of mine are the swinging "Call An Ambulance," the John Lennon-inspired "Blue Skies," and the falsetto-fueled, bell-like "In Transit."

The anxious, insistent guitar tones of "101" and the tense "Scared," with its melodic echo of "Cruel To Be Kind" and psychedelic chorus, help give the largely sunny CD some bite. It closes with two well-chosen covers, Guided By Voices' "Postal Blowfish" and the Buddy Holly chestnut "Well All Right," which serve as bookends to the vast shelf of pop from which Hammond draws his inspiration.

Highly recommended.

Hear some tracks at his Myspace page.

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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.
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