Friday, June 30, 2006

Rolling Stone previews A Hundred Highways

Next Tuesday-- the Fourth of July-- is the release date for the fifth entry in Johnny Cash's American Recordings series, A Hundred Highways, and Rolling Stone has the first review of the album that I've seen. They say it's a dark, harrowing winner.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Ron Sexsmith's Time Being: A First Listen

Boy, they just don't make singer/songwriters like Ron Sexsmith anymore.

There aren't too many artists working today who I love more than this guy, and perhaps none who can match his humility and gentle, restrained eloquence. He's a lyricist of uncommon warmth and romance, and his melodies can hold their own against Elvis Costello or Paul Simon any day. He's an uncannily cheery fellow, with lyrics that come perilously close to sentimentality but somehow transcend schmaltz, ringing with honesty and sincerity.

His last album, Retriever, is a modern-day classic, and last year's side project with Don Kerr, Destination Unknown, is a delight. Last Friday I received a copy of his newest record, Time Being, and it has immediately joined the ranks of my favorite Sexsmith discs. It's warm, understated, and filled with the same humility and sweetness that characterize all of Sexsmith's music. It's a more laid back collection than Retriever-- a bit less pop and a bit more folk-rock-- and it succeeds in capturing many of that album's charms while also branching out into new territory. It's everything a sequel should be.

If you live in Canada or Europe, you can buy the album right now. American listeners, I'm afraid, will have to wait until the fall. But it's well worth it-- nearly every track here is a gem:

"Hands of Time" is a mid-tempo folk-rock number, fusing the pop sensibilities of Retriever with acoustic guitars that harken back to his earlier works, as well as some of the electronic flourishes that characterized Cobblestone Runway. It also introduces the album's central themes-- the passage of time, and the contrast between the temporary and the lasting.

"Snow Angel" is an album highlight, and one of Sexsmith's most beautiful ballads, telling the story of a love that didn't last but nevertheless left a permanent mark on the two lovers.

"All in Good Time" is the record's first single, and as seamless a fusion of Cobblestone Runway and Retriever as one could ask for. Sexsmith's redeems the sadness of the last song with some of his trademark optimism: "All in good time, the bad times will be gone."

"Never Give Up On You" is a calypso number-- seriously-- built around acoustic guitar and gentle percussion. It's also one of Sexsmith's sweetest love songs.

"I Think We're Lost" starts off like a Coldplay single, with its chiming piano and soaring chorus, but quickly establishes it as this album's "Wishing Wells"-- a dark, brooding rocker of uncharacteristic despair. This one's sure to be a concert highlight.

"Reason for Our Love" has one of my favorite lyrics on the whole album, establishing the divine appointment of romantic love. Musically, it's a moody, jazzy tune in the same vein as "Foolproof."

"Cold Hearted Wind" is a lilting, springy little folk number that might remind you of Paul Simon, James Taylor, or Gordon Lightfoot.

"Jazz at the Bookstore," one of the album's boldest experiments, is a surprisingly edgy, bluesy rock number, with lyrics lamenting the commodification of great art.

"Ship of Fools" is another song of protest-- "We're all in the same boat, darling, a ship of fools it seems"-- set to a typically infectious Sexsmith pop/rock tune.

"The Grim Trucker" might be the most bizarre thing Ron Sexsmith has ever done, an oddly progressive number that shifts from breezy folk to Beatlesesque pop to crunching guitar rock.

"Some Dusty Things" is a moody, mid-tempo folk number that sums up some of the album's chief themes-- consider it a sort of sequel to "Hands of Time."

Finally, "And Now the Day is Done" is a gentle lullaby-- a solo acoustic guitar performance-- that serves as a fitting conclusion.

Is it as good as Retriever? No, it lacks that album's punch, its poetry, and it cohesion. But it's a worthy follow-up, and it easily holds its own alongside Blue Boy and Cobblestone Runway. It's sure to be one of the year's finest releases.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

More on Modern Times

Rolling Stone gives us a teaser:
We just got a sneak preview of his upcoming album, Modern Times, due out on August 29th. Times, which Dylan produced himself, mixes elements of 2001’s Love and Theft – blues variations (think “Cry A While”) and whimsical ballads (think “Floater”) – with the darker, swampier vibe of the Daniel Lanois-produced classics Time Out of Mind and Oh Mercy. Only Dylan’s current touring band plays on the new one: ringing in our ears was the bone-chilling vamp “Ain’t Talkin’”, which may be Dylan’s most powerful album-closing epic ever. Other song titles include “Thunder On the Mountain,” “Spirit on the Water,” “Workingman’s Blues,” “When the Deal Goes Down” and “Neddy Moore.”

Monday, June 12, 2006

Dylan gives us Modern Times

Holy smokes! Stop the presses! NME has some very thrilling news:
Bob Dylan's first album of new songs in five years will be called 'Modern Times' and released on August 28, according to an inside source at his US record company, Sony-BMG.

A number of hand-picked journalists were given a playback of the album in New York City last week but were required to sign legal undertakings not to talk about what they heard. One record company source described the album as similar in style to 2001's 'Love & Theft'. Another source claimed the dozen songs include "at least three masterpieces".
Thanks to Jeffrey Overstreet for catching this!

Friday, June 09, 2006

More reviews of Danielson and Scott Walker

I just noticed James Christopher Monger's review of Ships, the deliriously fun, wildly creative new album from Danielson. My own rave review will be posted eventually, but for now here's Monger's:
This is Smith's Led Zeppelin 1, 2, 3, and 4 all wrapped up into one giant boot stomp of a record, one that will no doubt please longtime followers and convert a few new ones into the fold. Lyrically, Smith is as colorful and incomprehensible as ever, trading childhood imagery for fluidity and astute observation for parable, with the notion of nautical camaraderie at its core. Standout cuts like "Did I Step on Your Trumpet," "Ship the Majestic Suffix," and the surprisingly straightforward closer "Five Stars and Two Thumbs Up" sound as communal as they read, and like every other song on the glorious Ships, they render the listener speechless. Highly recommended.
Meanwhile, Andy Kellman is talking about Scott Walker's landmark album The Drift:
From the outset, the album seems impossibly insular and impenetrable, especially if you've been led to believe that Scott Walker's name is synonymous with recluse, but it has everything to do with real lives (or, more accurately, real deaths). Walker is acutely aware of what's going on with the world outside his supposed candle-lit bunker; he's only finding very unique (OK, bloody minded) ways to bring them up. Any mystique behind the recordings is laid to waste by one scene from a documentary, titled 30 Century Man, which shows Walker -- a baseball hat-wearing sixty-something man from Ohio -- instructing another man on how to thump a slab of meat. It looks and sounds absurd, of course (the participants seem to be aware of this), but then again, the results are used in a song inspired by the public executions of Benito Mussolini and his mistress. Broken spells aside, how much more bleak could this album be? None more bleak.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Beware The Drift!

Earlier this week I had a chance to listen to Scott Walker's new recording, The Drift.

It won't be the album I listen to the most this year. In fact, listening to it is such exhausting work that I probably won't listen to it much at all. It's as emotionally draining, as utterly terrifying as any album I've ever heard.

And it will probably be one of the year's releases-- if not the release-- that sticks with me the most.

It's a chilling, utterly disarming piece of work that demands your full attention. It's a long, slow cycle of disturbing images, fractured poetry, and surreal bursts of sound. It's unlike anything you've ever heard.

And just get a load of these reviews!

"This is out in the margins, removed from 'pop' and 'alternative' genres by the scale of its reach, its bloody and bold ambition. It is complex, multilayered, densely plotted, wordy. It's also scary, harsh and bruised."

"It's unlikely that any other album will sound much like The Drift this year, and even less likely that it could be forgotten if heard even once."

"No easy listening feat by any stretch of the imagination, Scott Walker's The Drift will provide critics and general music fans with talking points for the next 10 years. It is, simply, a work of staggering emotional sentiment and complexity that few will be able to match."

"The Drift--in all its nightmarish, bloody glory--is as bold and profound a comment on our times as has emerged so far this century."

"The Drift is like a nightmare you look forward to repeating."

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

American V details revealed

Pitchfork Media unveils the tracklisting of the upcoming, supposedly final studio recording from Johnny Cash, American V.

Monday, June 05, 2006

New releases this week: Costello! Toussaint! Obscura! Zero 7! Rux! Walker!

Tomorrow, Tuesday, bears the dubious distinction of having the date 6/6/06.

On what I'll assume is an unrelated note, tomorrow is also the release date for a host of intriguing new recordings. Most exciting of all-- at least for this listener-- is The River in Reverse, the new Elvis Costello-Allen Toussaint collaboration produced by the great Joe Henry. Stephen Thomas Erlewine is raving:
This undercurrent of protest gives The River in Reverse thematic cohesion -- and as politically minded pop goes, it trumps such other 2006 albums as Neil Young's Living with War, if only because it isn't so heavy-handed about its intentions -- but what makes the album rather extraordinary is that it's as much celebration as it is protest. There is joy and tenderness within the performances of Toussaint, Costello, his backing band the Imposters, and Toussaint mainstays the Crescent City Horns, all captured by Joe Henry's clean yet warm production. If Costello pushes his phrasing a little harder than most interpreters of Toussaint -- not only does Allen himself have an easy, casual delivery, but so did such singers as Lee Dorsey, Aaron Neville, Ernie K-Doe, and Lowell George -- it suits the spirit of when the album was recorded, and Elvis is balanced about by the earthy, natural sound of the band, and Allen's graceful harmonies. As pure music, this is impossible not to enjoy, and this rich blend of R&B, blues, soul, and funk illustrates exactly how important New Orleans is to America's culture, and that it needs to be embraced in the wake of the disaster of Hurricane Katrina. Ultimately, the greatest achievement of The River in Reverse is that it, like the music of New Orleans itself, can not be pigeonholed or reduced to one specific thing. It can seem like a party, or it can seem like a bittersweet elegy, which is only appropriate for an album borne out of tragedy but created as a celebration.

Meanwhile, the new record from Camera Obscura is drawing praise from across the board; check out this review from Tim Sendra:
Head Camera Tracyanne Campbell writes amazingly intimate and tender ballads that can break your heart with the slightest lyrical twist, swell of strings, or vocal harmony. That she sings these songs in a voice so sweet and direct adds an extra level of feeling to songs like the wrenching "Country Mile" and the almost unbearably melancholy "Tears for Affairs." The band's gentle and restrained playing and the expansive production courtesy of Jari Haapalainen are note perfect as well. Whether rocking out in a Motown manner or lying back with some mellow country-rock, the combination of music, lyrics, melodies, and vocals is, well, enchanting.
And how 'bout that new Zero 7 disc, Garden? Marisa Brown says it's great:
While Sia's emotive voice has been long proven to be an excellent fit with Zero 7's music, the relative flatness of Gonzáles' adds a nice texture to the rolling movement behind it. And main songwriter Henry Binns, who also take lead vocals occasionally, is a master at adding harmonies that bring a kind of light pastoral intensity to the pieces, and gives them a great sense of structure. With Garden, Zero 7 have created what could be the ultimate summer evening record: warm pop hooks, lush instrumentation, unobtrusive electronica elements, and '60s-style harmonies that all come together into superb, wonderfully descriptive songs. And what could be better than that?
And then there's Carl Hancock Rux, whose new album is reviewed by David Jeffries:
Working with a smaller set of musicians -- and for a smaller label -- the multi-disciplinary artist Carl Hancock Rux delivers what is arguably his most musical album to date. There are more "songs" on Good Bread Alley than on the poet/author/vocalist's previous efforts, and Rux also uses his deep baritone singing voice more than usual. Hip-hop and electronica make brief appearances, but most of the sounds here are neo-cabaret, neo-classical, or downtown loft blues, played naked and live enough to suggest what a one-man show from Rux might sound like.
And then there's that new Scott Walker album, which, frankly, sounds a little scary.

Over the Rhine: Live in Nashville and Atlanta

Holy smokes! This weekend I had the joy of seeing Over the Rhine play a pair of knockout shows, one in Nashville and one in Atlanta, and both gigs were absolutely dynamite-- ten times better than their show in Knoxville last year, which was itself an excellent, grade-A performance. These guys are to small clubs and theaters what U2 is to arenas and stadiums.

A few highlights:

-- THEY'RE RECORDING AGAIN! Karin said they'll be hitting the studio again very, very soon. Her description of the new record was priceless: "We're not sortin' through a bunch of heavy crap this time, so it should be a pretty light-hearted record."

-- The new songs... well, gosh, where to begin? They played four brand new ditties-- all of which, I assume, will be on the new album-- and at least three of them ("Trouble," "I'm on a Roll," "Entertaining Thoughts") sound like instant OtR classics. "I'm on a Roll," especially, ranks right up there with "My Love is a Fever" as one of the most whimsical, downright FUN songs they've ever done. And as for the fourth new song, "I Don't Want to Waste Your Time"... well, it still sounds a little rough at this point, and the music sounds far too similar to "Little Did I Know." The lyric is killer, though-- I'm sure it'll end up being a concert-closing highlight if they play with the arrangement a bit.

-- Linford is a helluva storyteller. He didn't say a word in Knoxville last October, but he was talking up a storm last night, sharing stories about his upbringing and how some of the new songs got written. I'd pay money just to hear him talk. And so, I think, would most of the other folks gathered at those two shows-- both audiences were mesmerized, silent and attentive, appreciative of his hypnotic command of the language.

-- They opened with "Latter Days," and the song has never sounded better.

-- Same with "Jesus in New Orleans."

-- Same with "Show Me." And "Lookin' Forward"-- I've heard four or five versions of that song by now, and last night's was far and away the best. Ah, heck, every song was spectacular-- there were what seemed like dozens of standing ovations during both shows.

Here's Atlanta's set list; the Nashville show was mostly the same, minus "I Want You to Be My Love" in the main set, and, because the club was triple-booked, they only had time for a one-song encoure, "When I Go."

Latter Days
Jesus in New Orleans
Lookin' Forward
I'm On a Roll
Entertaining Thoughts
I Don't Want To Waste Your Time
Linford's monologue/Piano instrumental
Little Did I Know
Show Me
Drunkard's Prayer

First Encore:
The Seahorse
When I Go

Second encore:
Hush Now

Surprise! A new review is up.

Have I mentioned yet that my review of Paul Simon's new album went up at Reveal last week?

Well, it did.