The Grascals, Keep On Walkin'
The third disc from the award-winning Grascals has a slightly more traditional sound than some of their earlier arrangements, partly because of the addition of Aaron McDarris's banjo to the regular lineup. Precision playing is expected from a top bluegrass band, but having toured together for years now, the group sounds not only technically tight but also soulful and smooth.
"Indiana," a gentle original, has a tuneful lyricism, while a thoroughbred version of "Rollin' In My Sweet Baby's Arms" and a reverent cover of George Jones's "Choices" nod to the past. So does "Today I Started Loving You Again," a Merle Haggard tune that shows off the band's great harmonies and feel for old-fashioned country. It's a nice break from "pure" bluegrass, as is Harley Allen's antiwar ballad "Remembering."
With players this good, there is a risk that a studio recording will feel technically perfect and cold. Fortunately, the Grascals mostly avoid this, by, among other things, smart song choices, which include some cornpone silliness at the top ("Feeling Blue") and the bottom ("Happy Go Lucky"). Guest vocals from Vince Gill ("Sad Wind Sighs") never hurt anyone. And you might even tear up listening to lead singer Jamie Johnson's original "Keep On Walkin'."
V-Project, New Machine
This CD isn't very well produced. It's rock, but with fake drums. And it has a cheesy cover design. Yet it stuck out among the much better sounding discs in this week's pile because of the lack of sameness and the sheer fun of it. A little GnR, a little Steve Miller, a little hair-band rock, it's essentially a solo project of the talented songwriter and guitarist David Vaccaro, with notable help from an excellent vocalist named Robin McAuley. Catchy choruses, an obvious love for 70s and 80s rock sounds (and Steve Miller style harmonies), and an infectious sense of fun make this an unlikely standout.
Now all Vaccaro needs is better production. I receive hundreds of beautiful-sounding CDs full of sensitive, expert musicianship, all gorgeously recorded, mixed, and mastered on the best equipment with the finest touch. But so much of it is all the same: affectless shout-rock, or sensitive boys without the songwriting chops to match their performance skills. I'd much rather listen to V-Project.
Roots of Creation, Live
This band has perfected a jam-reggae sound that's ideal in a live setting, as reflected on this disc. Pop-reggae numbers like "Oh Lord," "Rise Up," and a cover of "Watching the Detectives" lead into dark rhythmic jams dusted with an electronica flavor and boosted by funk-rock riffs. The four musicians work together with evident joy as well as the tightness that comes from touring.
The band's vocals don't measure up to their musicianship, though in many cases (like "Oh Lord" and "Peace Love and Music") they make up in passion for what they lack technically, much like many punk bands. On the other hand, the vocals in "Void" – the second of two lengthy jams at the core of the disc – are low in the mix, and sound intrinsically half-hearted too. I should mention that I tend to be prejudiced against songs that are about music. "Void" features the redundant lyric, "Music set me free," something Roots of Creation does with their music without having to say it, from Chris Beam's heavy, insistent bass to Tal Pearson's organ and all the sounds in between. When just four guys can go to this many funky and interesting places, you want to go with them. This is definitely a band to catch – as the title of the CD suggests – live.
Amelia White, Motorcycle Dream
Amelia White's melodic, intensely flavored alt-country gets the full-on production treatment here, with top Nashville musicians backing her up on a fresh crop of original songs. Somewhere between the focused attack of Lucinda Williams and the flowery lyricism of Kim Richey, White's rather heavy musical sensibility finds full expression through her liquidy vocals and her fine, if occasionally over-arranged, backing band. One or two lighter songs to relieve the grim mood would make it a better all-the-way-through set, but the main thing is that this is a powerful CD that rewards multiple listens. The disc isn't out yet but you can preview a few tracks at Amelia's Myspace page.
The Smiling Strangers, All the Way
The Smiling Strangers' press kit promises "the joy of the three-minute pop song," and although most of these songs run more than three minutes, the influence of 1960s pop speaks through them loud and clear. With crisp and simple arrangements, strongly melodic songwriting, and male and female vocals that are more enthusiastic than precise, the disc does feel like something out of a more innocent – or at least less jaded – era. I especially like Lucy Winkett's full-throated belt, the kind of sound we haven't heard much in pop music since the time of Cass Elliot. Most of the best songs are on the first half of the disc; "The One I Hold Tonight," "Goodbye Grey," and "Beautiful You" are among those that stood out for me. There's a bit of heavier drama, with echoes of Crowded House in songs like "What a Good Boy," but for the most part it's a fairly light set, which is nice in this time when most musicians tend to take themselves too seriously.