Jeff Ellis, Learning How to Live
A blandly unpromising album title and press release relegated Jeff Ellis’s Learning How to Live to my “probably not worth bothering to listen” pile. Someone learning about “the importance of growth and change in [his] new album” makes it sound more like a Dr. Phil segment than a set of lively music.
But the disc turns out to be a well-written, well-produced set of a dozen original songs that criss-cross the linked terrain of lean rock and roll (“Where Your Memory Can’t Be Found”), late ’60s/early ’70s melodic pop (“Lovers Were Made for Days Like This”), heartland rock (“When She Comes a-Knockin'”), and confessional singer-songwriter material (the title track). The big-pop arrangement of “Already Made Up Your Mind” sounds dated, but the earnest, folksy “Mining Town (Hobet 45)” provides an effective contrast, and the Tom Petty-esque “Nickel & Dime” with its guitar riff borrowed from The Kinks’ “Lola” is warm and satisfying. The rising harmonies in the beautiful closer “Lullaby” nicely recall The Byrds.
Touches of folk and the energetic violin-sawing of “Always” aside, this album isn’t an “Americana” disc as promised in the press release. For the most part, it’s solid, middlebrow electric and acoustic rock, with strong songs delivered convincingly by a talented singer and writer backed by a well-chosen crew of musicians. Rather than professing to give “the listener a sense of comfort and peace” with his “openness, honesty and growth,” Ellis should have the courage of his kick-ass convictions. This disc kicks enough ass to merit that.
The Villains, A Little Something for the Pain
The Villains have a knack for smoothly melodic pop-rock with a timeless sheen. Two of the best songs, “Save the World” and “The First,” lead off their third album A Little Something for the Pain with unabashed guitar-pop melodies. The band goes a little country on the equally tuneful and appealing “Coming Home to You,” and really break out the twang on “Good for Nothing.”
The sound leans towards southern rock crossed with AC/DC-lite on the riff-driven “Daddy’s Got a Shotgun,” which is a little gimmicky and less successful. The earnest “Hard Times (For the Working Man)” also goes for anthemic hard southern rock without, somehow, rocking quite enough.
Shiny harmonies glint along the catchy melody of the sad “It Rained Everyday,” and “Lady Cruz” could be a lost side by the Atlanta Rhythm Section.
With more than one lead singer, more than two styles, and a whole constellation of influences, The Villains display multiple personalities on this album – guitar-rockers, country-rockers, popmeisters, a little Skynyrd, a little Tom Petty, a little Gin Blossoms, a little Eagles, a little George Harrison – and they even hit a happy medium with power-pop reminiscent of Richard X. Heyman in my favorite track, “All About You.” The variety is bracing, though not all the songs measure up to their best. It’s a solid effort from a talented band.
As a postscript, I appreciate The Villains bringing back Gordon Lightfoot’s “Sundown,” a song I used to love but had forgotten about for years. Welcome back, “Sundown”!
Anna Wilson, Jazzbird/Songbird
Among the many recent jazz-vocalist recordings I’ve heard, jazz singer/songwriter Anna Wilson’s new album stands out for its mingling of classic jazz sensibility with skillful songwriting. Its title, Jazzbird/Songbird, in addition to naming the Gershwin and Fleetwood Mac songs that bookend the 10-song set, accurately reflects Wilson’s musical identity on this disk and the nature of her art.
In a velvety, breathy voice both girlish and sophisticated, Wilson lives the songs, standards and originals alike, more like a cabaret singer than a cooler-than-thou jazz cat. The way she slides up to the second syllable of the word “champagne” in the song by that title, one of the six originals on the disc, is a small thing of beauty. “On a Summer’s Day,” another original, is a little bit Billy Joel and a little bit Marvin Hamlisch (the melody echoes the latter’s “What I Did For Love” in jazzier style). And Wilson’s understated take on the standard “The Shadow of Your Smile” demonstrates her way of putting her own interpretive stamp on a good melody without bending it all out of shape.
The original, vintage-style ballad “Inconsolably Blue,” a gem of accessible pop-jazz songwriting, forms the centerpiece of the album. “While the Music’s Still In Me,” Wilson’s declaration of the preeminence of music in her life, sounds like sophisticated 1970s pop in a jazz setting. It leads into a slim, airy, tasteful version of one of that era’s loveliest songs, Christine McVie’s “Songbird” from Fleetwood Mac’s legendary Rumours album. Wilson sings the hit fairly straight, proving, as if this needed further proof, that a great song remains a great song in any era.