Her best album. Amy Allison in many ways is the quintessential cult artist, possessed of a fan base that borders on rabid and an equally avid following among her fellow musicians, even if she never broke through to a mass audience. Which is somewhat mystifying until you consider the climate of the music business she grew up in (her now out-of-print albums with her 90s indie rock band Parlor James remain locked in a Warner warehouse somewhere). Allison already has a couple of genuine classic country albums to her credit, her debut The Maudlin Years and Sad Girl. This one is both musically and lyrically richer and considerably more diverse, ranging from characteristically gemlike, tersely metaphorical country songs to jangly pop to saloon jazz (including a duet with Elvis Costello on her dad Mose Allison’s wry, brooding classic Monsters of the Id, with the Sage himself on piano) And her voice has never sounded better – like all the best song stylists, she’s able to say more in a minute inflection than Kelly Clarkson could relate in an entire box set. Sheffield Streets is also notable for its purist sonics, producer and former Lone Justice drummer Don Heffington imbuing it with the warm feel of a 70s vinyl record.
The title track (and its charming video) effectively captures a bittersweetness and yet a fearlessness, as happens to anyone with a sense of adventure caught in a drizzle on unfamiliar turf: “I found a bar and curled up like a cat/I wrote a song on a beer mat.” The gently matter-of-fact, commonsensical second cut, Calla Lily takes existential angst and replaces it with a striking logic and purposefulness. The Needle Skips is vintage Amy Allison, with its vividly metaphorical oldtimey feel: “It’s funny how we lived so many moments, in the minutes of a song that came and went,” Allison reminding that it’s the scratches on the album that give it character.
I Wrote a Song About You sardonically looks at rejection as a self-fulfilling prophecy, set to a swaying country backbeat. A duet with Dave Alvin on an older song, Everybody Ought to Know actually doesn’t work as a duet (Allison realized that with considerable amusement after recording it), but both singers are at the top of their game as honktonk crooners. Hate at First Sight is a juvenile delinquent take on Brill Building pop; Come, Sweet Evening is a flat-out gorgeous nocturne, welcoming the darkness rather than shying away. The single best cut on the album is Dream World, both its bruised, exhausted protagonist and the bums on the street outside looking for escape in dreams, Allison taking care to wish those less fortunate a similar good night. The album winds up with another equally brilliant number, Mardi Gras Moon, its narrator popping pills and drinking: “I hear the distant music of the band/I’m losing all the feeling in my hands,” wishing she hadn’t made the trip to New Orleans only to be jilted. Rich with layers of meaning, shades of emotion and understatedly beautiful playing, this is a classic. Let’s see – for Amy Allison, that makes three. She plays the cd release show for Sheffield Streets at Banjo Jim’s on July 19 at 7 PM
The Hussy like short songs. They keep it simple, just volcanic, distorted guitar and drums, punk beats and blistering garage-inflected tunes. Both guitarist Bobby and drummer Heather sing. Sometimes they take turns, sometimes they do it together. It’s catchy, anthemic, fun stuff. If what they’re doing in the studio is any indication – a lot of this sounds completely live – their shows ought to be killer. And they have three records out on vinyl, something that more bands like this ought to be doing.
The Winter Daze 7″ manages to squeeze in six songs. One Word is like Ramones without the bass, with sassy punk pop vocals. A couple of these are barely a minute long: Herbie, sung by Heather sounds like a NY Dolls demo with one of the groupies joining in the melee. Turkey might or might not be about slaughtering a bird – it’s as assaultive as everything else here. Head Set is sexy, confrontational 3-chord garage punk with guy/girl vox. Winter Daze is poppier, with layers of guitar including an incisive solo – and is that a Casio? The best song on the ep is the irresistibly fun bubblegum punk Drinking Song which turns the original idea of teenage pop on its head. What do kids do? They get wasted! “Let’s go out and drink tonight with me!”
Also available is the Science of Sound split 7″ with the entertainingly playful garage/punk/noise band Sleeping in the Aviary. The Hussy’s contributions are I Got Soul, a minor-key riff-rock rumble; One Time, which sounds a little like X, layers of overtones and natural distortion screaming from Bobby’s amp, and a barely thirty-second number about snakes that resembles the DK’s.
The Creepy Season bonus tracks (which you can also get online) include Oh No, vintage Stooges gone unhinged, lo-fi, zeros style; Brown Eyes and its 60s Sonics fuzztone guitar vibe and Going Home, a snotty frenzy of cymbal crashes and a catchy walking guitar line. The Hussy have a whole slew of Madison and Milwaukee shows coming up: Summerfest next year, guys!
Martin Bisi’s indie cred is without question: his resume as a producer includes the Dresden Dolls, Sonic Youth, Live Skull and Black Fortress of Opium, to name just a few of the best. Yet his greatest achievements have been not behind the board but as a songwriter and bandleader. This download-only ep (it’s up at itunes and Contraphonic’s very easily negotiable site) impressively captures the freewheeling noir intensity, out-of-the-box imagination and counterintuitivity that come out so strongly at his live shows. The album features welcome contributions from a like-minded cast of characters, Bisi’s old 80s pal Bill Laswell as well as members of the Dresden Dolls, Balkan Beat Box, World Inferno and drummer Bob D’amico of the Fiery Furnaces.
The opening cut Drink Your Wine is basically punk Motown in the same vein as the Clash’s Hitsville UK with layers of the guy/girl vocals that have come to typify Bisi’s recent work along with a characteristically sardonic lyrical sensibility: “Drink your wine and don’t be silly,” Bisi admonishes: he doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Building from a dusky noir intro, disembodied vocals rising over bass chords, Rise Up Cowboy explodes into a pounding art-rock anthem laden with dynamic shifts, layers of evil psychedelic guitar glimmering in the background, Bisi doing an impressive job as Peter Murphy-style frontman. The Damned only wish they could have sounded this apprehensive and ominous.
Mile High – Formaldehyde blends early 90s style Lower East Side noir blues with careening Firewater/Botanica style gypsy punk, propelled by the Dresden Doll’s Brian Viglione on drums. Its companion track Mile High – Apple of My Eye, with Laswell on bass, is a study in contrast, sultry and pulsing, something akin to New Order as done by early Ministry. It’s a vividly sisterly approximation of the previous cut’s menace, which is particularly appropriate in that it was inspired by Bisi’s daughter. With its clever layers of vocals, the final cut, the title track recalls the off-the-rails psychedelic eeriness of Bisi’s previous album Sirens of the Apocalyse (very favorably reviewed here). Essential listening for fans of dark imaginative rock: Bisi has several midwest and New England live dates coming up. You’ll see this on our Best Albums of 2009 list at the end of the year – not bad for a little five-song ep.
Smartly tasteful, purist Brazilian-style jazz from a first-rate cast of players: bandleader Paul Meyers on guitar, Helio Alves on piano, Donny McCaslin on saxes and flutes, Leo Traversa on bass and Vanderlei Pereira on drums and percussion. The songs are spacious and expansive, generous in that there’s always plenty of room for individual contributions. The chemistry between band members is obvious, creating strong and memorable interplay, nobody overplays, and the swells and ebbs of the songs are magnificently timed. You can dance to a lot of this: in the summer, ideally under the stars. It picks up as it goes along.
The title track opens with subtle samba inflections, then they burst out brightly, Alves leading the pack, bringing in a little blues but not darkening the mood, Meyers stepping out warmly on acoustic, McCaslin’s sax following comfortably in its wake, bobbing on the waves. Eyes That Smile is the prototypical song here. It’s more of a salsa groove, electric guitar and piano locked in, Meyers’ fast, scurrying, brightly melodic guitar solo down to a balmy flute interlude. And then picks up again, sax taking over, the rest of the band returning gently, this time with acoustic guitar and an Alves solo with some neat Cuban spice.
Plum begins somewhat bittersweet but grows warmer with a devious guitar-driven groove, Traversa playing with a trebly Jaco tone when it’s his turn to solo: again, dynamics come to the front here. Stars has more of a cuban beat with fluttery flute, and some particularly neat interplay between piano, guitar and flute as they each carry a part of an arpeggio. Gary Burton’s Panama, a tune originally recorded with Pat Metheny, is bouncier, the group playing against a steady guanguanco groove, guitar running through a marimba patch to enhance the tropical ambience. McCaslin gets to soar higher here than he has on any of the earlier tracks, as does Alves. Because, a strikingly somber nocturne, also serves as a showcase for McCaslin to add some darker inflections
River opens with some African inflections from Meyers, then the piano comes crashing in. Alves finally gets the chance to fire off some cascades and makes the most of them. And then McCaslin floats a balmy breeze over the rhythm section’s scurrying intricacies. The album wraps up on a high note with the buoyantly swinging, aptly titled North Meets South. If there’s anything to nitpick about here, it’s that the impeccable good taste that Meyers and crew exhibit here is both blessing and curse. They really have a lock on a mood and keep it going. The trouble is, they tease you: just when you think they might just explode and go crazy for once, they bring it back down. It would be interesting to hear this crew live and see how many more chances they might take.
Every day, our top 666 songs of alltime countdown gets one step closer to #1. Friday’s song is #390:
This is just about the best breakup song ever written. Not maudlin at all, just haunting and resigned and absolutely heartbroken, Jackson’s gentle, wounded vocals nebulous and somewhat shellshocked over a swaying Ticket to Ride beat and pulsing layers of guitar and keys. From her So High cd, 2005. The link in the title above is the stream at last.fm