We're all over the place this week, musically speaking. So to avoid getting us all dizzy with mood swings, I've put these selections in order starting with the darkest and progressing to the most upbeat. It works out nicely, because if you only have time to read one of this week's reviews, let it be that of…
The National Lights, The Dead Will Walk, Dear
Looking at the song titles on the debut CD from this Virginia trio – like a song called "O, Ohio," and the traditional "The Water Is Wide" – I expected folk music.
But no. It wasn't the old "The Water Is Wide" that everyone in the world seems to have covered. And, although the CD has a hushed, subdued sound, plenty of acoustic guitar, and no drums, it's not folk music.
Then again, maybe it is. Certainly in the "it's all folk music" sense. Or if you look at the whole ten-song, 28-minute opus as one long American Gothic murder ballad. Because every song is about hurting and dying. Beautiful women or children are killed with shotguns, or drowned – one way or another enholed. Often there's water. Sometimes the singer is alone, sometimes not. Sometimes he sees the victim as deserving of her fate:
We'll wait 'til dark to dig that hole outside
Big enough for you to fit inside
All those hearts you broke are still beating
This is helping, honey this is healing
Other times she seems innocent:
There's a hole in the river
Where they put your body down…
I'll hold in my bones
That sweet little heart of yours
It's not big enough to beat for two anymore
I'll grow for us both
The creepy thing is the way these doomy lyrics are set, not to death-metal grinding sounds, but quite the opposite – in gently rolling little songs, miniatures really, sung in grey, half-whispered tones by songwriter/mastermind Jacob Thomas Berns. Shades of Sufjan Stevens, ghosts of Nick Cave.
Berns's sparse guitars are padded by multi-instrumentalist Ernest Christian Kiehne, Jr. (Ernest Christian, get it? Oh wait, that's his real name…), who adds more guitars, some bass, and lots of keyboards, including weighty organ parts on several songs. And the icing on this devil's food cake: smooth, eerie harmony vocals by Sonya Cotton. Descended, I imagine, from Cotton Mather.
There's no need to mention which songs have what, though. This CD plays as a single sad, strangely pretty, discreetly paranoid, glittery-eyed work. Of which you can get a good taste at their Myspace page. Go. But watch your back. For "look at what we've become/A black heart and a loaded gun."
Black Diamond Heavies, Every Damn Time
This duo of self-described "vagrants/citizens of the world" makes gruff, scratchy, lo-fi blues and soul music like there was nothing else they ever wanted to do. It ain't pretty, but it's got balls. Like Hillstomp, they make a big sound for two people, but it's dark and electrified and loud.
While his left hand covers the bass parts on a bass keyboard, singer John Wesley Myers pounds a distorted sound out of his Fender Rhodes electric piano with his right, which provides the hoarseness that hard music normally gets from guitars. On vocals he sounds as much like Howlin' Wolf as any white man I've ever heard, particularly on "Might Be Right" and the frenzied opener "Fever In My Blood." The Doors – another keyboard-heavy band that (live, anyway) relied on keyboard bass – come to mind when listening to "Leave It In The Road," and there's an element of punk fury in song titles like "White Bitch" and "Guess You Gone And Fucked It All Up."
Myers's growling might get a little monotonous, but its combination of anger and humor keeps the CD fun. Meanwhile, Van Campbell's half-crazed drums and splashing cymbals fill out the rest of the sonic color-by-number.
An exception in several ways, the eight-minute opus "All To Hell" adds a bass player, a Hammond B3 player, and horns. Its severe, gritty soulfulness makes it a standout. But the more modest "Stitched In Sin" proves the duo can also put across an affecting ballad without reinforcements. Maybe there's something dense and scary in the water of Port Arthur, TX – Myers's hometown, and Janis Joplin's.
Erin Sax Seymour, Good Girl
Erin Sax Seymour's new seven-song set is a mix of old-time country and modern country-rock. Three tracks were recorded live with her band, the rest with producer Stephen Joseph and other studio musicians. Her voice has a little-girl side that suggests the Dolly Parton school of country singing; she also unloads stronger timbres when needed, like in the waltz ballad "What You See In Me."
The songwriting is a little maddening. The CD sounds gorgeous, but the dry syntax of Seymour's lyrics tend to distract attention from her gutsy melodies and vividly emotional music. It makes me think of some other artists, also with female vocals, whom I've written about recently – such as Laura Vecchione and the sadly dormant Great Unknowns – artists who make music in a roughly similar style, but who are more in touch with the raw side of language. Now and then, Seymour's tricky lyrics come across as sharp and clever: "Was the letting go worth the getting over?" But more often, her catchy up-country numbers like "Peace Tonight" as well as her pretty, sensitive singer-songwriter fare (like the title track, which sounds like something off of Dire Straits's Making Movies) suffer from a scarcity of strong words. The musically soulful "Substitute" declares rather meaninglessly, "Ain't no substitute for a broken heart/And drawing that line is so damn hard," and culminates weakly with "Somewhere between your heart and mine/Lies the answers [sp] that we've been denying."
This doesn't prevent me from respecting Seymour's talent, or liking the music. It's just that following the lyrics cuts down on that enjoyment.
The band on the three Dixielandish live tracks is so energetic and fun, and Seymour's singing so sprightly, that after three listens they've emerged as my favorite tracks. "Signs How This Ends" and "The Gift" are especially good.
Hear MP3s at Erin Sax Seymour's Myspace page.
Spanic Boys, Sunshine
On the heels of the new Bill Kirchen CD comes another Telecaster blast, this one from the father-and-son team known as the Spanic Boys. Their new, heavily Beatles-influenced set focusses as much on the duo's close vocal harmonies as on their dueling Fender guitars. Like many family singers, their melded voices can sound almost supernaturally in synch, rather like the Everly Brothers, but they do more sliding around, which makes for slightly weird effects.
Many of the songs – all written by the Spanics – seem expressly written to feature their vocal harmonizing, sometimes at the expense of other important aspects of songwriting, like dramatic effect and hookiness. Songs that transcend that limitation include the slow waltz "What Will You Do," whose harmonies suggest both the early Eagles and the Byrds' version of "Satisfied Mind."
"Secret" sounds like a lost, slow Beatles track if Robbie Kreiger had been invited to play a guest guitar solo. There's not much to the song itself, but the sound is like a slow burn from the underworld. The title track is essentially a tribute to specific Beatles sounds and songs, especially "Rain," to which it might be construed as an answer. As we reviewers can get tired of saying, you could do a lot worse than to use the Beatles as a touchstone, if you can get away with it. The Spanic Boys aren't remotely the songwriters the Beatles were, but their expression of the deeply layered mid-period Beatles guitar sound is sure.
Our heroes can't entirely avoid coming across a bit academic. But at least it's the Ivy League. And it's not all Beatles all the time. My favorite tracks are "Bigger Fool Than Me," a two-minute snarl of 1960s rock and roll power, and the raw garage-rocker "Broken Wheel."
"Didn't Love You Anyway" is hard-edged country rock of the sort those pesky Beatles coopted decades ago for songs like "Dr. Robert," and the CD closes with the jittery, bass-and-drums-driven "You Don't Worry Me," which effectively grafts the Spanics' trademark, lazily moving harmonies onto a fast, insistent beat.
MP3 clips here.
Jill Cunniff, City Beach
The sunny side of New York City life peeks through the froth in this, the solo debut of Luscious Jackson's Jill Cunniff. Described by Cunniff as a "mood record made to bring the beach to caged up city dwellers," the CD lives up to that in several early songs and two at the end. The light, bright, sophisticated arrangements are like bubblegum with beats. But I enjoyed the CD a lot more at a modest volume at home while concentrating on something else, than I did in the car, where I want my music loud and ear-important. Want edgy? Go elsewhere. Want nice? This is nice. Maybe, for some Luscious Jackson fans, a little too nice.
There are some standouts. Cunniff goes deep in "Warm Sound," copping the tune from "Horse With No Name" and layering it on top of a thick atmosphere and syrupy beat drawn from Tori Amos's "Cornflake Girl." The baubles "Eye Candy" and "Exclusive" are tangy, catchy melodic pop – if you can ignore the lame lyrics.
"Love Is A Luxury" has a big build that Cunniff's modest vocal chops don't quite measure up to. But "Future Call," an intense little ska-tinged rocker, gets the blood going some; if Mr. Roboto-era Styx got together with Martha & the Muffins and had a baby band, it might sound like this.
can you hear the future call
valley boy, repo girl?
We're tearing down the shopping mall…
can you hear the future call
wild boys and west end girls?
read the writing on the wall
A portion of the proceeds from the CD are going to benefit the Surfrider Foundation, a non-profit that works to fight ocean pollution and preserve beach access.
Hear clips here.