Izzy & Chris, Preachin' the Blues Vol. 1
This guitar-and-harmonica duo, hailing from West Virginia and western Pennsylvania, is the real thing. Live, they're so earthy they sound like scuffed-up boots on a muddy trail, and this disc captures that gritty but melodic sound well. Chris's soulful harmonica dances like a dusty rain over Izzy's guitar, Dobro, and mournful vocals. Simplicity is key in these tracks; it's a real accomplishment to achieve that while still sounding honest in a style of music that's storied and, in some quarters, set in its ways. Izzy & Chris have no need to invent anything, except for writing their songs; they tap into the fundamentals of country blues and mine that vein for all it's worth.
Like Bells, Like Bells
Sometimes a shower of instrumental music is the most refreshing thing you could ask for. This Oberlin trio of conservatory students has an excellent formula. Though based on pop-rock, their songs quiver with ambient moods, prog-rock elements (like odd time signatures), wordless vocal lines, violin sawing, and above all, melodic creativity. There's nothing very original here — the distorted guitar leads and orchestral washes take me back to the days of early Genesis, in fact. But those were good days.
Angie Stevens, Queen of This Mess
In a full, slightly scratchy voice, Angie Stevens sounds the eternal call of the lover — "Hold me close before you go." Her songs ride a wave of Americana (think Jessi Colter or Patty Griffin) over a sea of coffeehouse pop, and it's a nice combination. In terms of pure creative imagination, most of the songs don't live up to the promise of "Hold Me Close," but song to song the overall effect is burnished and sweet. Front-porch honesty takes her a long way.
Thanks to Malcolm Burn's spare production, Stevens's homespun voice stays front and center. This isn't altogether a good thing, because she sounds pretty much the same in nearly every song. This made me wish for more variety in the arrangements, more happy tricks like the organ runs in "This Time Around" and the three-part harmonies (with Seth and Josh Larson) in the satisfying thrum of "Anything." When Stevens cuts loose over Jon Wirtz's New Orleans style piano on "Drinking Song" it's a relief to discover that yes, she can let go and grab us with something more biting than plaintiveness. I'm all for intimacy, but sometimes you gotta rock — I mean, if you can. And she can.
M Shanghai String Band, The Mapmaker's Daughter
I saw M Shanghai String Band several years ago at a small club in Brooklyn (possibly Freddy's, but my memory's too beer-clouded to be sure). At that time, a bluegrassy string band out of Brooklyn was a novelty. Now, not so much; the New York City roots music revival has been in full swing for years, and I'm really happy that this band from my town has been having so much success on the road. I also hear great things about their recent live shows.
Given all that, I really wanted to like their new CD, but alas, it left me underwhelmed. There's fine playing throughout, no doubt about that. But the singing is pretty bland overall, and the songs fall short of compelling, at least to this roots-music fan. Maybe this is just one of those bands you have to see live.