Esperanza: Songs From Jack Kerouac’s Tristessa
Okay, so there was this guy named Kerouac, a Beat-generation writer—a guy you’ve probably seen quoted by most of your friends in your high school yearbook—and he wrote this sad love story about a guy and a heroin-addicted Mexican prostitute and called it Tristessa. Now, over fifty years later, the good people at Reimagine Music arranged a bevy of great musicians to perform songs inspired by Kerouac’s powerful tale. Included in this astounding release are some of New England’s best and brightest. Like The Low Anthem, for example, whose sedate, narcotic slow-burner, “Numbers In Nirvana,” with it’s drone-heavy textures, smokey vocals, and tandem melodic acoustic guitar pickings, really captures the dreamy heaviness of the novella.
Marissa Nadler’s acoustic ballad, “Tristessa’s Song,” as well, with the lonesome melancholia of the silver-lined female vocal duet, really captures at the deep-seated sadness of Kerouac’s work. Seriously, if a breaking heart actually made a sound, it’d probably sound like this. Neal McCarthy’s mandolin-driven, fiddle-kissed tune, “Esperanza,” featuring the honeyed backing vocals of Barbara Kessler, harkens to Tom Waits’ gutwrenching gruff-voiced ballads and does a damn good job of it, if you ask me. But I think it’s “Broke My Calm,” Will Dailey’s country-twangin’ tune that really stands out. It kicks in at the end with upbeat vocals, growling harmonica, and boom-chicka-booming drums to provide some much needed oomph to this record. (Will Barry)
Red House Records
There’s a lot to like about Meg’s latest CD. First, her voice and piano playing go so well together. She is a talented songwriter and poet too. And the fine production sounds like she’s sitting in your living room playing a set just for you. The lyrics deal with healing, spirituality, wellness and love and they are sung in such a personal way the listener feels Meg is singing right from her heart. All the self-written songs are basically folk ballads but old-school folkies will dig the special effects that local producer Crit Harmon (Martin Sexton, Mary Gauthier) adds to the music—very effective. Songs like the title and opening cut “Beyond That,” “Only Just Begun,” “Making You A Place,” “Let’s Go,” “Yellow Room,” and “Turned To You” showcase this beautiful collection of songs that remind me a bit of David Gray’s “Whiteladder” where the great lyrics combine with a contemporary production. She also reminds me a bit of Joni Mitchell but she is more introspective and meditative than Joni. And while Joni generally sings in general terms, on this release I get the feeling that Meg is singing directly to me about a previous experience in her life. Hutchinson grew up in the Berkshires and you may have seen her busking in the subway stations; don’t miss her now. It’s folk at its avant-garde best. (A.J. Wachtel)
THE BLACK CHEERS
The Cat, the Bat, the Rat, the Dog
These short blasts of melodic hardcore are more complex than they initially appear and provide proof that some very talented people play punk rock because they want to, not because it’s the only thing they can master. Dan O’Halloran sounds just like James Taylor, assuming someone had just kicked Sweet Baby James in the balls and made him gargle thumbtacks. I swear I mean that as a compliment, and really, this record would make the perfect soundtrack to that act of socially beneficial violence. Lest anyone get the wrong idea, though, The Black Cheers make the type of music that is more likely to put a smile on your face than warp you into fits of anger. The songs are a little crazed and a little in the gutter, but it’s all in the name of fun. And there’s lots of fun to be had here. (Kevin Finn)
DAVID GREENBERGER AND SHAKING RAY LEVIS
Tramps That Go Think in the Night
Musically, Tramps is a busy, lively, teeming and above all playful Musique Concrete assemblage which draws upon the often zany synth, samples, and arrangements of the late Dennis Palmer. Overall the lyric content is as idiosyncratic and delightful as we have grown to expect from recitatives drawn from Greenberger’s oral history project, Duplex Planet. Pick tracks include the wild and wooly “The Seven Dwarfs,” the goofy, funky “Disappear the Cold,” and the deadpan hilarious “Death of a Salesman,” as well as the instructive “Landlord No More,” and the ominous and sad but sardonically funny shaggy-dog story “My Princess.” The grandly icy and glacial final track “Two Boats, Drifting” is especially poignant. Tramps is less a freak show and more a menagerie of conflicting, idiosyncratic voices, with all the heavy-duty mojo of What It Truly Means to Be Human always implied but never presented in a heavy-handed way. (Francis DiMenno)
Permanent Records, Inc.
Remember the ’70s? No? How about the ’80s? No? Do you remember the ’90s? Still no? Well, take a listen to this album and it’ll jog your memory. You’ll hear elements of all three decades (and then some!). Pop Gun has revived the best of rock from the best decades past. It’s dirty. It’s loud. It’s rock ’n’ roll. Guaranteed to turn every shoe gazer into a head banger. Disaster rock the likes of Orangutang mixed with *AM Stereo, Heretix, Damone, and Seventeen. I have to warn you, though: these guys couldn’t carry a tune if it had handles. And yet you won’t care. That just doesn’t matter. There’s finesse to this chaos. Like a fine wine that started off as a ridiculous experiment; crushed grapes stuffed into a bottle? And sealed for eight years? Yet once you taste it, there it is: blackberry, American oak, cut green grass, black pepper, molasses, and a little wet dog. Yep. That’s Pop Gun for you folks. Tasty. (Shilo McDonald)
AGE OF END
Torn and Severed
On their most recent EP, Age of End melds the melodic hard-rock of Alice In Chains with the metalcore of Killswitch Engage. The result: four tracks of exceptionally produced music that balance the line between radio and mosh pit ready—a difficult line to walk. “Souls to Bleed” tones down the crunch and growl enough to ensure a place on Boston rock radio while “Torn and Severed” pulls out all the stops with thrash-core riffing throat lacerating screams. (George Dow)
“Martha Mae” is sedate, life-affirming singer-songwriter fare backed by luminescent piano. Most of the remaining tracks are feel-good anthemic songs ala “Umbrella.” Baze’s voice is pleasant and naive, like that of Mo Tucker, with distant echoes of Laura Nyro. Her version of Phil Ochs’ “When I’m Gone” is restained and supremely lovely and well-phrased. But often, such restraint gives tunes such as the title track the air of recitatives rather than full-blown vehicles to show off the more expressive shades of her voice. (Francis DiMenno)
CRADLE TO THE GRAVE
Aggressive yet melodic and wearing its heart on its sleeve without ever being sappy or mopey, Cradle to the Grave has produced an album every bit as ferocious and fun as their live show. You can hear echoes of The Thermals, singer Drew Suxx’s former band Lost City Angels, and some old school hardcore, but the band pulls off the rare trick of making punk rock sound new and original. One reason for this is Joe Wyatt’s violin. What could come off as gimmickry proves to be essential, as his playing adds color and emotion to every song, while never being overdone. Also key are the background vocals of bassist Julie Two Times, which add warmth and depth. And I probably shouldn’t have gotten this far in the review without mentioning the guitar playing of Paul Christian, who brings technical chops, but with taste. His style manages to stay rooted in punk while not confining itself to the perceived guidelines of the genre. In fact, that pretty much sums up the band as a whole. (Kevin Finn)
MODERN DAY IDOLS
Almost Glad To See You
Cloyed with redolent melodies, maudlin male crooning, chiming guitars, and rich vocal harmonies, Modern Day Idols’ debut screams Top 40s-style pop at the top of its soulful little lungs, but does so with such pride and confidence that it’s really hard to hold that against them. The brilliant production of the album and high-caliber of musicianship make it exceedingly difficult for me to piss on this band’s serenade parade. Their sound is warm and comforting, uplifting overall, but still tinged with a tart wistfulness. I’m sure for many it’d be a welcomed guest during the early stages following a bad breakup. Personally, at times like those, I prefer to sit alone in the dark with a bottle of bourbon, but I guess I’m just old fashioned like that. (Will Barry)
The first track, “Minus Zero Hour,” is a not-bad impersonation of an Artaud-esque transmission from Sirius, with a Go Away I Hate You vibe. Even Twice is a rhythmically flexible drum and bass combo with a little more than average on the ball, though they aren’t Lightning Bolt by a long shot. But “Bring Me the Head of John Q. Public,” regardless of its merits as a goofball recitative, at least mixes things up, while “Amelia” is a traumatically creepy art song which devolves into slap-happy post-punk melodrama. The more amusing novelty numbers include the goofy anthem “Disaster Boy,” the Black Sabbath send-up “Mariachi Car Bomb,” and the unaccountably catchy zombie call-to-arms “Brain Eater.” For all its off-kilter tuneage, this is a hard collection to dislike. Even the incomprehensible but malevolently goofy “R.J. Shuffle” has its charms, what with its truncated jazzy bass solo and its croaking la la la chorus. (Francis DiMenno)
Vermont native Myra Flynn spent the bulk of the last year or so in New York City. The influence of the city is immediately apparent on her new release, Half Pigeon. The city fairly percolates from these songs.
Over the course of her first two releases, Flynn has established herself as a voice to be reckoned with—combining elements of folk, soul and R&B into a sound uniquely her own.
Half Pigeon will likely mark her graduation from the coffeehouse circuit to the rock club scene. Electronic flourishes, well-placed guitars and choppy bass lines scream, “Brooklyn indie rock scene.” It would be easy at times to mistake Half Pigeon for the latest hipster release on DFA Records. But modern production and hip electronics aside, Flynn never loses sight of the soulful vocals that so define her as an artist. As such, this release isn’t a shift styles so much as it is an elevation of the style she has so effectively created over the course of her previous releases. (George Dow)
Off You Go
From what I gather, it’s been a few years since these guys put out a new record. This is either too bad that we’ve had to wait, or a sign that it’s worth taking your time to get something right. Gladiola makes noisy pop that on occasion becomes a little too pleasant, but generally has enough darkness and cacophony beneath the surface to keep the listener’s interest over repeated spins. The strength of this record lies in the vocals as Bill Madden’s Superchunk-y vocals add some manic angst, which is nicely offset by Jess Madden’s sweeter ones. The less said about the strikingly cheesy sax on “Your Biography” the better, but overall, this is quite the solid effort. (Kevin Finn)
Up South Vol. I & II
9 tracks total
This CD was hand-delivered to me in a plain white wrapper with no band info on it other than the song titles. When I looked them up online I see a bunch of big bearded men onstage and learn they are from Lynn on the North Shore. Songs like “Columbus Stockade,” “Rat,” “Dirt”, “Old Plank Road,” and my two favorites “Guess So/ Take Me Home” and “Water” complete Vol. II and are mostly slower tempos with gasping and growling vocals set to hillbilly music with a drunken, metal edge—sorta like Alice Cooper meets The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band meets Metallica. In some songs there is a banjo/uke hybrid strumming chords behind a bellicose and belligerent voice. Vol. I is only three songs: “River,” “Banker,” and “Shaman” which is more drunken blues with a hillbilly/ metal feel. This music is like a tidal wave; either you like it a lot and get swept up in it or you don’t. Listening to this CD is like looking out your window and seeing a massive storm overhead—interesting, creative and eclectic meet strange and depressing. (A.J. Wachtel)
I suppose there’s an enormous difference between competent (read: rudimentary) meat and potatoes rock and acid garage rock revival with a sense of fun. Maybe not so much musically, but in terms of influences and attitude. Standard operating procedure for your typical steakhead style of bashing would consist of superfluous shredding and braying vocals—strident and serious with no nuance or even clearly demarcated motivation. Music of the sort purveyed by Mars Bonfire may be rudimentary, with rhythms approaching the lockstep (“Bump & Grind,” “Friends in Hell”) but attitude is key—who can resist a line like “in Hell/mach schnell”? Attitude redeems this project, and makes it more like a knowing tribute. A tribute not only to the innumerable naive and unknown louts awash in the Beatles, the Stones, The Kinks, and the Yardbirds, who happened to cut their Bizarro-version Brit Invasion pastiches during the mid-1960s, but also a tribute to the likes of Roky Erikson & The Aliens, to whose early 1980s album The Evil One much of this collection seems a somewhat pallid afterthought. “A Fadeaway” seems more ambitious along the lines of a flawed Stones pastiche like Satanic Majesties, and the ludicrous “Starfawn” seems deliberately ridiculous as a bit of fake-serious genre clowning—its over-the-top recititative brings to mind such classics as The Higher Elevation’s “The Diamond Mine.” Overall, if you dote on the sort of gothic-tinged monsterbilly purveyed by The Cramps, et al., then you won’t mind Mars Bonfire at all. (Francis DiMenno)
NEAL & THE VIPERS
Full Circle (recorded live at Chan’s)
This red hot CD is just what I would expect from a killer gunslinger and his band; a stellar live performance that sets the standard on the current scene. Their opener, “One Horse Town,” one of the cuts written by Neal and bandmate/ vocalist/ harp player Dave Howard, sets the mood and is a good shuffle done by one of the best bar bands in New England. Their other compositions: “Little Miss Prissy,” “The Man With The Wicked Wandering Eye,” “What’s Better Than That” and my favorite, “Sugar Daddy,” continue with their patented sound. And these cats rock! Solid vocals add to their tight sound and is an important force behind these good barroom romps. But Neal’s screaming guitar is the main focus. He teases, he showcases, he teaches, he makes you listen. And hear his great talent on Allen Toussaint’s “Get Out Of My Life Woman” or Jimi’s “Little Wing”: with the effects, the note for note tributes, and his own creativity; a combination that simply drives this song to the stratosphere. And the out-of-the blue cover of the ’60s instrumental “Pipeline” closes this great set. What a treat. These cats can play! Steve Bigelow on bass and Mike LaBelle on drums are the perfect artists to surround Neal and Dave. Their power and experience add the right feel to make the group sound tight and enjoyable. This is exactly the kind of music you want to hear on your next night out. What a band. What a CD. (A.J. Wachtel)
Danger on Radio
While listening to this CD, my wife and I had the following conversation:
She: How do you go about saying something sucks without just saying “this sucks”?
Me: Well, in this case you could mention how Kennedy’s voice recalls Adam Sandler or Kermit the Frog without any of the humor or heart.
She: Oh, so something like, “Just because you can have all these instruments on your album doesn’t mean that you should”?
Me: Right. Or you can say something like, “Kennedy constantly tries to impress the listener with his exalted intelligence, but doing things like rhyming meritorious with vainglorious simply makes you come off as ridiculous.
I could go on, but I’m sure this little device for reviewing this album is growing every bit as tiring as actually listening to it. (Kevin Finn)
DAVID GREENBERGER & A STRONG DOG
So Tough features a Zappa-esque sound with lashings of jaunty contemporary jazz, as on “Direct Deposit.” Other notable numbers include the heavy hokum jive of “Strip Poker,” the tolling tomfoolery of “A Robot, A Girlfriend and a Playhouse,” the diatribe “Advice for Gentlemen,” and the frenetic sax jollities of “I Don’t Wanna Do That.” Additionally, there’s the soothing and profound “The Age I Am,” the tumultuous and electrified (g)rumble of “My Goat,” and the touching, elegaic “Let Them Go.” The end result is yet another grandly idiosyncratic triumph for David Greenberger and his musical and literary collaborators. (Francis DiMenno)
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