Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Album of the Day 11/24/10

Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Wednesday’s album is #797:

Lefty Frizzell – 16 Biggest Hits

Lefty Frizzell was a legendary Texas honkytonk singer from the 50s, a guy who sounded a lot older than he was. By the 70s, now in his 40s, he sounded close to 70. One of the songs here, an early proto-rockabilly number, is titled Just Can’t Live That Fast (Any More), but in real life he didn’t seem to have any problem with that. He drank himself to death at 47 in 1975. But he left a rich legacy. This album is missing some of his best-known songs – notably Cigarettes & Coffee Blues – but it’s packed with classics. Frizzell’s 1950 version of If You’ve Got The Money I’ve Got The Time topped the country charts and beat Hank Williams – a frequent tourmate – at his own game. Other 50s hits here include the western swing-tinged Always Late (With Your Kisses), the fast shuffle She’s Gone, Gone, Gone and Frizzell’s iconic version of Long Black Veil – with its echoey, ghostly vocals and simple acoustic guitar, it’s even better than the Johnny Cash version. From the 60s, there’s the surprisingly folkie version of Saginaw Michigan, the sad drinking ballad How Far Down Can I Go, the torchy, electric piano-based That’s the Way Love Goes and I’m Not the Man I’m Supposed to Be. His later period is best represented by I Never Go Around Mirrors, later covered by both George Jones and Merle Haggard. This is one of those albums that pops up in used vinyl stores from time to time, but isn’t easy to find online. There’s a popular “500 greatest country songs” torrent with several of these on it out there; if you see one for this particular album, let us know!

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November 24, 2010 Posted by | country music, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Uncle Leon and the Alibis Raise the Roof at Rodeo Bar

“I love you, Leon!” a girl hollered from the back of the bar. Uncle Leon, frontman of Uncle Leon and the Alibis is not your typical babe magnet – he could be Joba Chamberlain’s wiser, older brother (they have a similar midwestern blue-collar look). But he pulls demographics that your average bunch of Strokes wannabes would kill for. Back in the early-to-mid zeros these guys put on some of the funnest, funniest shows in town…and then they broke up. It didn’t really matter that they weren’t particularly tight, because Leon’s David Allan Coe-style songs were so funny. The first thing that hits you is what a good band this new version of the group is – they don’t need to be funny all the time to be interesting. Lead guitarist Charlie Aceto plays the stuff Leon can’t, and has a good handle on Bakersfield guitar – and he can do Social Distortion roots-punk and blues too. Maria on the drums is missed – she was always at least half of why the original band was so irresistible – but the guy who replaced her is solid and and can really swing, teaming up with bassist Neil Magnuson.

The thing that separates these guys from the rest of the funny country bands out there is that their jokes are usually pretty smart and edgy: they don’t just rely on cornball cornpone humor. Leon’s specialty is the battle of the sexes: the good guys always lose, badly. That’s how he comes across – that, and his resonant baritone probably explain the presence of all the women at his shows. Sure, he’s having fun up there, but the guy can flat-out sing. That this particular set was successful without either of his big hits, I Hate My Job or Drugstore Roses (or his cover of Baby Got Back), speaks for how good the rest of the material was. They opened with a blackly funny faux murder ballad based on a real-life encounter between Leon and a bounty hunter in a Dairy Queen parking lot somewhere in Kansas. My Love Is Like a Monster Truck was what you’d think it was: monster trucks use up a lot of rubber (that might not have actually been one of the lyrics, but it could have been). A slowly swaying, mournful ballad turned into a kiss-off anthem: “When you said ‘I love you,’ I thought that meant just me,” Leon explained. They blasted through a truck-driving number, Blue Sky and Asphalt and then a boisterous version of Hot Rod Mamas, where he skewered “catalog girls” with their perfect everything and their selfcenteredness – he likes a girl with a little junk in the trunk but with brains too.

They did three covers: an understatedly vicious version of Hank Williams’ My Love For You Has Turned to Hate, the Merle Haggard classic Swingin’ Doors and a practically halfspeed, swinging, straight-up country take of the Stones’ Dead Flowers – that song’s retirement date may have come and gone a long time ago, but damned if these guys didn’t make it sound fresh. They wrapped up their first set with a cowpunk number – Good Time Woman? Two Time Woman? Two Ton Woman? It could have been any of them, maybe more than one.

Uncle Leon is not only a singer, he’s a co-founder of Brooklyn Country, who maintain an excellent site dedicated to country and roots music in New York, with a concert calendar, interviews and the occasional album review. Kind of like us, but more specialized. Uncle Leon and the Alibis’ next gig is at midnight on 9/11 at Southpaw as part of the excellent three-day Brooklyn Country Music Festival.

July 26, 2010 Posted by | concert, country music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

CD Review: Jay Bennett – Whatever Happened, I Apologize

What a harrowing way to start the new year. This cd hits you with a gale force, bitter, brutal and direct. Even if you try to get out of the way, Jay Bennett – the talented multi-instrumentalist who for all intents and purposes was Wilco until he left the band and Jeff Tweedy decided to become Brian Wilson – will still knock the wind out of you. Most of this cd – Bennett’s fourth solo album –  is just voice and acoustic guitar, occasionally embellished with organ and bass that are so good that you’re left wanting more. While the songs on this album scream out for a full band to flesh them out, even if this is as far as they ever get, that’s fine: they still pack a wallop. Stylistically, Bennett evokes Matt Keating or Richard Buckner in particularly energetic mode: this is smart, terse, gorgeously melodic Americana rock with equally smart, tersely unwinding lyrics. It’s a concept album about a relationship gone awry, spectacularly: this one was doomed right from the start, and if Bennett is to be taken at face value, it’s something of a miracle he got out alive.

 

The cd starts with a road song, just a bit of ominous foreshadowing in the same vein as the Wilco classic Far, Far Away (from the Being There cd), followed by the matter-of-fact, dismissive I Don’t Have the Time. Bennett knows there’s drama coming down the line and he wants no part of it. “I don’t have the good looks, but I know yours won’t last,” he caustically tells the woman. With the next cut, I’ll Decorate My Love, the genie’s out of the bottle, Pandora’s out of the box and all hell breaks loose, setting the tone for the rest of the cd:

 

There will be no profit in protection

Even when you’re walking miles in the rain

I will curse the day I met you

And you will curse the day I lost control

And there will be no reward for your actions

Even when you’re trying to save your lover’s soul…

You were down before me

 

The themes that recur again and again here are missed opportunities and wasted time (go figure), notably on the cd’s towering centerpiece, the big, crescendoing 6/8 ballad The Engines Are Idle:
 
The engines are idle and the trees are all bare

And the issues are clouded and hang in the air

The best part of the story is the part that you missed…

The best part of the record is the part where it skips

And she lost the lyrics and the jacket is ripped…

Cos it’s ageless and timeless but beauty must fade

And you looked so much better when the picture was made

 

The pace picks up and emotions reach a fever pitch on How Dull They Make the Razor: Bennett wants to wait this one out, but he ends up getting dragged in anyway:

 

It don’t matter how dull they make the razor

You won’t feel it when you’re dead 

 

On the next track, Without the Benefit of Sight, Bennett likens himself to a block of ice on a Chicago rooftop in early spring, loosened just enough to become deadly. Exasperation and despair take over center stage:

 

If you want to weigh me down there’s just one layer left

I’ve been repainted so many times it’s anybody’s guess

 

And that’s pretty much where it’s left. Bennett muses on how Hank Williams might have written this story, then throws up his hands and lets that work as a smokescreen: he’s through with trying to cut through the smoldering underbrush, and the songs follow suit. “I lost my best friend last night, I’m working on number two/Won’t you give me a chance cause your chances are through,” he warns on the stark, mandolin-spiced ballad Talk and Talk and Talk. The cd ends with a lament for the world as a whole – the relationship seems to be a microcosm of something far worse – and then with the understatement of Little Blue Pills, “that don’t make you ill – someday they will.”

 

Intensely personal yet not the least bit self-absorbed, this is the best thing Bennett’s ever done. And the best thing about it is that the cd is absolutely free: Bennett is giving it away as a free download at rockproper.com, click here and then hang on, this is not exactly easy listening.

January 5, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Real Live Bluegrass in New York City? Yee Ha!

All you out-of-towners might be shocked to know that there’s a vibrant bluegrass scene in New York. The Dixie Bee-Liners, whose new album just hit #1 on the Roots Music Report got their start here. Since they left town, the best band around these parts is Straight Drive, whose gorgeously soulful performance of old-time, old school style bluegrass at Banjo Jim’s Saturday night would have made Bill Monroe proud. A lot of new bluegrass bands give off a coldly sterile, fussily technical vibe, but not this crew. Fiddle player Ronnie Feinberg made his marvelously precise runs look effortless. Banjo player Terry McGill was even more impressive when not soloing than when he was. He has great technique and a terrific way of building to a crescendo, but when he plays rhythm, he doesn’t just comp chords: he uses the whole fretboard, toying expertly with the melody. He threw everybody for a surprise by ending one song with a couple of high chromatics, and then bent the neck of his banjo ever so slightly to raise the pitch. Their new mandolinist is a vast improvement over the guy he replaced, the bass player pushed the beat along and frontwoman Jen Larson was brilliant as usual. Incongruous as it may seem, the most striking and haunting voice in maybe all of bluegrass belongs not to someone south of the Mason-Dixon line, but to this casually captivating architecture historian originally from Boxford, Massachusetts.

But she didn’t do the haunting thing tonight. This was Straight Drive’s fun set. This crew knows that a lot of bluegrass is dance music, and while they didn’t get the crowd on their feet, everybody except the trio of trendoids in the corner yakking away, oblivious to the music, were swaying back and forth and clapping along. Their version of Bill Monroe’s (Why Put Off Til Tomorrow) What You Can Do Today had fire and bounce; their cover of Hank Williams’ Blue Love was nothing short of sultry. The best of the vocal numbers, which they interspersed among the instrumentals, was a warmly swaying 6/8 number written by Larson that wouldn’t be out of place on a Dolly Parton record from the mid-sixties. Larson can give you chills but tonight’s show proved she can also make you smile and keep your head bobbing in time with the melody. Like most of the best New York bands, they don’t do a lot of shows here because the money is on the road, where audiences are used to lousy cover bands, and a show by a group like Straight Drive is a special treat that you can’t just see any old day.

February 11, 2008 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

CD Review: The Jack Grace Band – The Martini Cowboy

The Jack Grace Band have been sort of the opening act du jour on the country circuit, opening for Merle and Willie Nelson and Jerry Lee, et al.. If this is an attempt to get some notice from the retro country crowd, it ought to work. Hell, this ought to get them on the Grand Old Opry, if they don’t mind songs about cocaine at the Ryman Auditorium.

The Jack Grace Band’s last album I Like It Wrong put in some serious overtime on some of the better jukeboxes across the counry. In fact, you could say that it was the party album of the summer of 2004. Suffused in booze and tested live on crowds of drunks in dives all over town, those songs were every smart party animal’s alternative to Jimmy Buffett. It may therefore come as some surprise that the new album by the Jack Grace Band is an attempt to – gasp – make a serious record. I say record because the cd is divided into a distinct side 1 and side 2. A concept album, no less, complete with little instrumental fragments separating the songs, and something of a central, unifying theme. The most surprising thing about it is that it actually works. Tight, focused, thoughtfully conceived, in other words, everything Grace’s previous work was NOT. Which ironically was always his saving grace – the band may have been a little loose, the whiskey may have run rivers but you always knew that if you went to see these guys live you would have a good time. While it doesn’t look like anybody left the bar for very long to make this album, it’s a hundred eighty degrees from what you might expect after hearing the last one. Is it possible that Grace has actually matured?

The Martini Cowboy is packed with haunting, gorgeously old-fashioned, 1960s style country songs with tasteful electric guitar, soaring pedal steel, piano and a rhythm section that swings like the dickens. You can dance to this stuff more than you can Grace’s older stuff. Because ultimately that’s why honkytonks exist: where else can you squeeze your cheatin’ lover against the jukebox and sway to the strains of Merle Haggard? Who happens to be exactly who the first song, the album’s title track, evokes. Straight up. When he’s on top of his game Jack Grace’s songs sound like country classics from 40 or 50 years ago. The cd’s second song, Broken Man continues in a purist vein, driven by Jon Dryden’s beautiful, incisively minimal honkytonk piano “I’m not gonna go out there tonight,” swears the Martini Cowboy. He’s been burned too many times. Which leads perfectly into the next song, Cry, a sexy bossa beat and groovalicious bass player Daria Grace’s bop-bop backing vocals only momentarily distracting from its eerie minor-key drive and bitter lyrics. When after a surprisingly jaunty, jazzy guitar solo the thing stumbles out of its groove and literally falls apart, the effect is nothing short of heartbreaking.

The album’s next track Trying to Get Away from Nothing at All zooms in on our protagonist trying to pull himself away from the brink. It’s a showcase for Jack Grace’s voice, a big, Johnny Cash style baritone that can handle the over-the-top whiskey-drinking anthems and the dark, disturbing ballads with equal aplomb.

After that song, we get Sugarbear, another minor-key Waits-esque number with ambient steel guitar, and Rotary Phone, arguably the album’s best song , a haunting, skeletal minor-key blues: “Let me tell a story about the way it used to be/With a rotary phone don’t leave a message for me/You’re gonna be an old man too…”

The last song of the “A side”, What I Drink and Who I Meet at the Track (Is My Business) is completely self-explanatory – it’s one of those songs that someone should have written long ago, and that it took this long before someone did is a mystery. It’s a good thing that it was this guy who wrote it and not Neil Sedaka. I mean, can you imagine Neil Sedaka at the track? No, you can’t. He’d get killed before he got to the stands.

The “B side” begins with Uncle Luther. By now, the Martini Cowboy has fallen in love. His Uncle Luther is moving back to the shack he hasn’t lived in for ten years and the Martini Cowboy has to get out. But that’s not what’s bugging him. It’s that he can’t stop thinking about her. Yeah, her, and it scares the hell out of him. The following tune, Verge of Happiness is so George Jones it’s not funny, in fact it’s scary, right down to the vocals. Nobody ever did desperate, lost love songs better than Jones, anyway, so it makes sense. Happy in the Fall continues in the No Show Jones vein “I’m happy in the fall, but I don’t like the landing,” Grace muses ruefully as the band swings behind him. The album’s climactic track, Something to Look Forward To – where the guy finally gets the girl – is a bit of a letdown. Like at the end of Siddhartha when the guy finally gets to India and all he finds is…OMMMMM (hey, this is a serious album, I’m trying to be serious about this).The cd concludes with a real old-timey number called Spike Down, which sounds like an electrified version of some obscure 19th century folk blues.

There’s not a weak song on this album – which is more impressive than you think. Hell, even Sergeant Pepper had that stupid phony raga tune that Harrison sang. And Merle Haggard’s greatest hits albums all seem to have those horrid pro-Vietnam War ditties he did before he woke up and smelled the coffee. So the Martini Cowboy’s in pretty good company. If this doesn’t get him the big record deal (memo to the band – WATCH YOUR BACK), Jack Grace can always fall back on his side project Van Hayride, which plays country covers of Van Halen songs. I’m not making this up. Not a word.

May 9, 2007 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments