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Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Tinsley Ellis, Alternate Routes, King Wilkie and More

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Tinsley Ellis, Moment of Truth

Tinsley Ellis often draws comparisons to blues and rock guitar legends like Freddie King and Warren Haynes, but when I listen to his heavy-lidded blues-rock I can't help thinking of Jimi Hendrix and his disciple Stevie Ray Vaughn. I think it's a combination of the unflashy singing and the stripped-down guitar-bass-drums attack.

Yes, there are some keyboards on Ellis's new CD, but they're for decoration. The album is first and foremost about great guitar playing, and only secondarily about the songs, which are solid and structurally straightforward. This is rock-hard no-excuses Southern blues going strong in the new century.

Moment of Truth is the second release of the Atlanta bluesman's second tenure with Alligator Records. The label's Bruce Iglauer summed it up when he first heard Ellis's music in the late 1980s: "It had the power of rock but felt like the blues." Ellis's playing has become a little more spare over the years but, if anything, gained a feeling of easy fluidity.

That's especially evident in some of the new CD's slower tunes, like "You're Gonna Thank Me" and the gloomy, minor-key "Too Much of Everything." But even when he brings out the pyrotechnics, as in "Bringin' Home the Bacon," Ellis makes it sound easy. Using the standard blues guitar palette he seems to always manage to have something a little bit new to say with each solo. Like all the best blues guitarists, he gives his instrument a real speaking voice.

Highly recommended for blues and rock-guitar fans, and a good introduction to Tinsley Ellis for those new to his music.

The Alternate Routes, Good and Reckless and True

I first heard the Alternate Routes when one of their songs appeared on a compilation CD with one of mine. The song, "Ordinary," stopped me on my tracks – I hadn't heard such a good pop song in a while.

Naturally, when I received the Alternate Routes CD I was worried that the rest of the songs wouldn't measure up. But it turns out to be a very good CD. "Ordinary," with its memorable, soaring melody and lyrics, screams "first single" to my ears, but the band is more than one great track. Bursts of power-pop ("Who Cares?", "Time is a Runaway") mingle with sophisticated Sting-like ballads ("Hollywood", "The Black and the White") and high octane rockers ("Going Home With You," "Are You Lonely?"). Tying them together are Tim Warren's clear, bright tenor – like Sting's voice without the rasp – and the band's ability to fuse affecting melodies with his graceful lyrics.

Not every song is brilliant, but it's a relief to know that "Ordinary" isn't a fluke. "Going Home With You" is crafty and menacing. "Hollywood" has an unexpected chord change that gets you right in the gut. The more generic-sounding "Time is a Runaway" – the actual first single – has a beautifully photographed, skilfully directed but ultimately boring video directed by Lisa Cholodenko, the filmmaker responsible for the awful "Laurel Canyon" but also the excellent "High Art." You can watch the video if you want to see what these guys look like driving around in a van, but the album is the important thing, and it's a fine achievement.

Highly recommended for adult-alternative audiences, twentysomething hipsters… practically anyone, in fact.

Listen at their Myspace page.

King Wilkie, Low Country Suite

Here's a CD that really sneaks up on you. The young band King Wilkie earned an "Emerging Artist of the Year" designation from the International Bluegrass Music Association in 2004. (The stiff competition that year included Cherryholmes.) Now, still using bluegrass instruments, the Vriginia sextet has recorded a new collection of original songs with maturity and skill. The lyrics aren't always great, and co-lead vocalist Reid Burgess will probably learn to sing with a little more subtlety. But those are minor flaws. Lovingly produced by Jim Scott, who's worked with Tom Petty and the Dixie Chicks, the CD sounds like flowers and flows like wine.

Once in a while there's a tiny bit too much flow, in fact, and the band seems to de-focus, as in "Rockabye."

Many of the songs, especially those sung by the buttery-voiced John McDonald, are fairly dark. "When the levee broke, nobody was around/You stood by watching when I fell to the ground/There's no blood on my hands, 'cause I do what I'm told/Want to live a lot longer, now I'm feeling so old," sings McDonald in the beautiful "Savannah." The songs that you could call truly fun, like "Angeline" and "Miss Peabody," are in the distinct minority. But the disc leaves you feeling good simply to have basked in the presence, for 43 minutes, of a superb musical sensibility.

The closing tune, "Captivator," begins in a sweet and low James Taylor-like mode, then kicks up into a shout-along rave-up that's sure to bring a smile to your face. Unless a motorcycle just ran over your foot.

Highly recommended for roots music and Americana fans. Hear tracks at the King Wilkie website, and watch a quick "making of" video at Amazon.com. Can these guys be as sweet-natured as they seem in the video? If they are… holy easy chair, Batman! They also have a Myspace page.

Kate Voegele, Don't Look Away

Speaking of Myspace: now that the site has gone into the record label business, aren't you curious whom they've chosen to sign?

The answer is Kate Voegele, a highly commercial-sounding but refreshingly non-wimpy chanteuse-songwriter out of Cleveland. Her debut CD certainly beats what most of those American Idol alums have had cranked out under their names. The best songs are top-notch, and Marshall Altman's crystalline production is just inventive enough to keep the ear dancing even through the lesser tunes. There are no real duds anyway. If you appreciate good, youthful pop that a person over 25 – or, say, a Tori Amos or even a Joni Mitchell fan – wouldn't be embarrassed to be caught listening to, this is a good choice.

Hear full tracks at her Myspace page.

And now, on to some indie EPs that have come my way recently.

The Compulsions, Laughter From Below

The Compulsions make crackling New York City hard rock. Their shimmery-grungy guitars come straight from AC/DC and Keith Richards, their smart-ass sneer from punk bands like the Dictators, their drawling beats from blues-rockers like the Black Crowes. Put it all together and the Compulsions seem to be aiming to fill the empty slot left by Guns N' Roses.

Their EP rocks hard, and their best songs, like "Down on the Tracks," "Howlin' For You," and the country-ish ballad "My Favorite Wine," have the kind of ragged simplicity that makes for classics. When their songwriting matures a tiny bit more, they could contend to take over the world – or at least its dirty underside, which is the fun part anyway.

Hear full tracks at their Myspace page.

Guards of Metropolis, Whatever It Is

Is there a void in your musical life where Elastica and Garbage used to reside? Then this half-Norwegian, half-Californian quartet might be the cure for what ails you. The first two songs on Guards of Metropolis's new four-song EP are slick, happy-angry little elasto-rock gems, and the title track even boasts a light taste of progressive-rock complexity. Its chugging antiwar message goes down easy: "You keep screaming that peace is a reason to fight/You keep praying and saying the future is bright/You keep shovelin' shovelin' shovelin' shite/Under our noses/While telling us that you're planting roses." Hmm, who could they be talking about?

I'm not sure what the fast-barreling rocker "Exhole" is about, but it isn't anything nice. And that's a good thing.

On the heavier "Perfect World," snarling singer Kristin Blix switches to a menacing whisper. "It's a perfect world," she sings, "and I'm the perfect girl" – daring us to say otherwise. The EP closes with "Have You Found Your Yoko Yet?", a pretty, Lennon-esque power ballad with a nicely building musical structure.

Guards of Metropolis is a promising band and I look forward to hearing a lot more from them.

Jack Conte, Nightmares and Daydreams

Jack Conte brings pop, art-rock, and classical music influences to bear on this acoustic-electronica EP. Smoothly cerebral with a moody, concentrated energy, these four songs give your brain a wee workout along with your ears. Classy, tasteful stuff.

The Morning Pages, The Company You Keep

This warm, analog-recorded Americana EP comes from a Brooklyn band with a fine philosophy: as singer-songwriter Grant Maxwell notes, there is "a yearning for a more organic music that is emerging in some of the new bands." Elements of country music, Dylan-style folk-rock, and gospel meet in piano-heavy arrangements that suggest The Band.

But the nasal lead vocals are kind of annoying, and with the exception of the rollicking, minor-key "With the Lord," the songwriting is on the weak side. The Band, let it be noted, recorded a bunch of foot-draggers as well as their great long-distance runners like "The Weight" and "Up On Cripple Creek." The Morning Pages need to come up with more of the latter sort.

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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.