For the better part of the last ten years, Lorraine Leckie has been writing dark, deadpan songs that owe as much to punk – at least the spirit of punk – as they do Americana. Her new album Martini Eyes is deliciously ghoulish, and it’s her best one yet. It’s her Nebraska: simple, spare arrangements, most of them with just vocals and acoustic guitar or piano. If Patti Smith had gone Nashville gothic instead of punk, she might have sounded something like this
The real gem here is Don’t Giggle at the Corpse. It might sound funny, but it’s not, at all: it’s a blackly cynical depiction of a funeral. “Take a sip of wine…here we go, it’s time for the show, don’t giggle at the corpse,” Leckie warns, completely serious, perfectly capturing the temporary insanity that comes with grief. “I wish this town would burn to the ground – I loved him a lot, show him what we’ve got,” she muses out loud. It’s a profound theme for a year that’s had too many funerals.
Leckie follows that with a couple of distantly Tom Waits-ish ones. Trouble is a stark, witchy blues: things die and summer turns to winter wherever this girl goes. “Crazy girls are easy to love/By morning you’ve had enough,” the off-center narrator of Red Light intones – she’s written her paramour’s name on her walls in lipstick, and crayon, and god knows what, and what makes it poignant is that she’s just sane enough to know she’s crazy. And the 6/8 murder ballad Hillbilly will strike a nerve with anyone who’s survived the gentrification that’s blighted New York, or anywhere: girl from the sticks comes to town, wants to be a star, blithely steals another girl’s guy…and gets what’s coming to her.
The unexpectedly hilarious track here is I Met a Man, a simple, cabaret-ish piano tune about scoring drugs all over the world. “Coppers all around me like rain,” sings Leckie – and then runs off to Amsterdam to score again. The album winds up with Listen to the Girl, a stark yet encouraging theme for brooding individualists, and the off-kilter title track, laden with regret for a lost love who might or might not have left under his own power. One of Leckie’s greatest strengths as a songwriter is what she leaves out, and this is a prime example. Count this as a late addition to the rapidly closing list of the best albums of 2010.
Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Monday’s album is #778:
Tom Waits – Blood Money
This was a hard choice. The game plan here is still pretty much to pick one album per artist, and Waits is a guy pretty much everyone agrees on, someone who arguably deserves four or five on this list. This one from 2002 won out over the rest, perhaps ironically, because it’s probably the least eclectic one out of everything he’s released since the turn of the century. Here, there isn’t much skronk: Waits’ rustic croak and carnivalesque, phantasmagorical beatnik lyricism get set to gritty, brooding minor-key oldtimey jazz arrangements with some noir, cinematic instrumental miniatures like Knife Chase and Woe interspersed among them to shift the dynamics around. Everything Goes to Hell might be the ultimate expression of Waits’ philosophy – or, that could be the opening track, Misery Is the River of the World. God’s Away on Business and Another Man’s Vine (depression-era Harlem slang for “coat”) are the requisite cynical numbers; Coney Island Baby (an original, not the Lou Reed song) and a surprisingly good-natured, actually quite majestic version of A Good Man Is Hard to Find lift the darkness just a little. And Starving in the Belly of a Whale is the most surreal of them all. Here’s a random torrent.
It’s surprising that nobody’s done this yet, and it’s a good thing that the Jack Grace Band did it instead of, say, Jimmy Buffett. The country crooner’s new album Drinking Songs for Lovers is party music for smart people, and it’s definitely the funnest album of the year so far. For Grace, whose previous album The Martini Cowboy was surprisingly dark and serious, most of this is a defiantly unapologetic return to the party vibe of his 2005 cd I Like It Wrong, but with more swing. Credit his better half, bass player Daria Grace, for joining in on a groove with their jazzy drummer Russ Meissner. Jack handles most of the guitar work, with Mike Neer on lapsteel, Bill Malchow on keys and longtime Johnny Cash pianist Earl Poole Ball guesting on a couple of tracks.
The songs portray a wide variety of of drunks – the crazy neighborhood guy you run into at the bodega on a beer run right before four AM, the guys at OTB, the serious dude who watches his roommate drink himself into a dangerous state. These guys treat drinking as a serious business, a necessary alternative to some unthinkable alternate universe. Hangovers are a big part of it, an occupational hazard: it’s a tough job and somebody’s got to do it. Starting first thing with Morning Margaritas, a bracingly Tex-Mex way to kick off the album, featuring the Broken Mariachi Horns (J. Walter Hawkes on trombone and Rob Henke on trumpet). If You’re Gonna Raise a Drunk is one of those songs that needed to be writtten – beyond offering some useful tips, it manages to stick in a litany of favorite drinks and favorite places to drink them. I Drank Too Much Again vividly captures the grim aftermath – the headache pounding behind the late afternoon sunglasses is visceral. Drinkin’ and Gamblin’ is a surprisingly hard-rocking minor key banjo tune; a rapidfire honkytonk lesson in trucker lingo, The Worst Truck Driver in the World is a teens update on the 1976 C.W. McCall rig-rock classic Convoy minus all the CB radio references.
Jack Grace’s baritone is one of the most soulful voices in New York music, but the best vocals here actually belong to Daria, perhaps singing the apprehensive minor-key blues Drank Yourself into a Corner while Jack was on a beer run. Drink a Little Hooch is the album’s second tribute to drunken gamblers: “Is there something I’ve been missing out on?” the perplexed narrator wants to know. The album winds up with the surreal, heavily hungover-sounding, Tom Waits-ish Haven’t Had a Birthday Now for Years, the blazing lapsteel rocker So Ugly, a merengue number (the guy at the bodega, remember?) called It Was a Really Bad Year and a depressive, authentically retro 60s style country ballad that recalls Jack’s previous albums.
This cd isn’t for everyone. Country music fans will love it, as will drinkers of most every stripe. Serious-minded folks might object to how cavalierly and completely nonjudgmentally chronic alcoholism is portrayed here, but fuck them. They’re no fun. The Jack Grace Band will be at SXSW for a bunch of gigs including a show on March 19 at 4:30 PM at the Saxon Pub with Earl Poole Ball from Johnny Cash’s band on piano. Their next NYC show is April 2 at 10 PM at Barbes.
File this one under “new noir songwriters” alongside Mark Steiner, the Oxygen Ponies and Mark Sinnis. Fans of those guys as well as the two who started it all, Tom Waits and Nick Cave, will enjoy Mark Growden’s new cd Saint Judas. Like Waits, Growden blends blues with a smoky noir cabaret feel; as with Cave, Growden projects a downtrodden yet randy gutter-poet facade. The Bay Area songwriter/accordionist/banjoist has a fantastic steampunk band behind him – recorded live in the studio, they turn in a passionate, rustically intense performance. Fiery blues guitarist/lapsteel player Myles Boisen, cellist Alex Kelly, horn player Chris Grady, bassist/organist Seth Ford-Young and drummer Jenya Chernoff all deserve mention here.
Most of this stuff, predictably, is in minor keys. The album’s second track, Delilah (no relation to Tom Jones) gets the benefit of a balmy trumpet solo from Grady that lights up the pitch blackness underneath. The title track is the best song here, an uncharacteristically jaunty, cynical, funny number which recasts Judas as a patron saint of the insolvent and dissolute: “Bottoms up to you, buddy, ’cause somebody has to take the blame.” They take it down after that with a slow country ballad as Nick Cave would do it: “If the stars could sing they would surely sing of you,” Growden intones.
They pick it up again after that with a swaying, stomping minor blues, Boisen’s electric slide guitar wailing against one of many tight, inspired horn charts here. Leonard Cohen’s I’m Your Man gets a slow, Tom Waits-ish blues treatment, followed eventually by a sizzling number that mingles fiery electric slide with Growden’s banjo, a mournful elegy told from the point of view of a coyote who lost his mate to a trap, and an extremely cool, thoughtful, Asian-tinged solo horn taqsim that gives Grady a chance to show off his mastery with overtones – it sounds like he’s playing a shakuhachi. They close with an ersatz gypsy waltz and a lullaby.
This album won’t be to everyone’s taste. As great as so many noir artists are, it’s a stylized genre. For vocals and lyrics, Growden doesn’t go outside the box – some will find his exaggerated drawl affected and his lyrics derivative and contrived. But the quality of the musicianship and the richness of the arrangements – the songs wouldn’t suffer a bit if they were simply instrumentals – offer considerable compensation. LA-area fans have the chance to see Growden play the cd release show for this one on March 16 at 8 PM at the Hotel Cafe, 1623 1/2 North Cahuenga in Hollywood.
Nouveau outlaw country songwriter and Nashville expat Joe Maynard does double duty as a rare book dealer, hence the tongue-in-cheek band name. On this cd – his first with this particular crew – he comes across as sort of a hybrid of Townes Van Zandt, Tom Waits and David Allan Coe. Maynard built a reputation for gut-bustingly funny songs with his previous bands, the upbeat Illbillies and then the more traditionally oriented Millerite Redeemers. On this cd, he’s as surreal as always but considerably more somber, and the jokes are darker as well. Musically, it rocks pretty hard in places: Ryan Adams’ production is terse and imaginative on both the upbeat stuff and the quieter numbers. The album’s best song, Elvis Museum is a prime example, Adams’ piano quiet and determined over a swaying backbeat, and it’s a genuine classic. It’s quintessential Maynard: the museum in question turns out to be a pretty pathetic excuse for one, the King’s portrait between “a sinkful of dishes and a toilet stall,” but this offhandedly savage satire of celebrity worship still manages to be sympathetic. Likewise, the opening track, Pine Box, a body in a coffin taking a sarcastic view of the preacher and the pageantry outside. After a gentle, rustic beginning lit up with some vivid violin from Naa Koshie Mills (also of the Disclaimers, and the musical star of the album), lead guitarist Mo Botton rips out a nasty garage rock solo.
Maynard hails from Brooklyn these days and uses that milieu for several of the songs, including the surreal Cowboys of St. Bartholomew – about a gay street couple – and the deadpan, reverb-drenched Rocky and Bessie, an ominously bizarre tale of a couple of stray dogs in Fort Greene. He also sets the poem Shallow Water Warning – a drowning recalled by the victim – by legendary outsider poet Helen Adam to a swaying Tex-Mex-inflected tune. Otherwise, the titular redneck girl of the big bluesy raveup isn’t exactly what she seems, the drugs bid a fond farewell to the body they ravaged in the lullaby Dear Addict, and the rest of the world hides and surfs the web while the world burns – literally – on the Velvets-esque apocalypse anthem It’s Been a Great Life, Botton adding some aptly furious Sterling Morrison chord-chopping on the outro. The cd closes with a heartfelt tribute to Maynard’s lapsteel player and flatmate, the late, great Drew Glackin (also of Tandy, the Jack Grace Band, Silos and numerous other A-list Americana bands). The whole thing is a richly lyrical, fearlessly good time, darkness notwithstanding. The band is also impressively good live. Maynard and the Musties play Sidewalk on Dec 4 at 8 PM.
Today is ripoff day. A ripoff differentiates itself from a scam by not being downright illegal. The $25K grand prize for the International Songwriting Competition may or may not exist, the latter case which would vault it into the former category. The promoters of the competition claim that the judges include Tom Waits, Kings of Leon, Loretta Lynn, Black Francis, McCoy Tyner and Toots Hibbert, but even if that’s true, and those luminaries voted en bloc, they’d still be outnumbered many times over by a crew of schlockmeisters from the soon-to-be-defunct major labels. Ultimately, contests like these boil down to a glorified lottery. What chance does a musician’s hard-earned $25 entry fee stand? A look at last year’s winners provides the answer – and the organizers’ decision to make this information public may turn out to be the marketing disaster that shuts them down for good.
The grand prize winner was a generic trip-hop song. The production is laughably obsolete – the drum machine shuffle was over by 1996, something you would expect judges ostensibly the caliber of Messrs. Waits, Hibbert et al. to be aware of. Perhaps far more telling is that the song’s writers, fortysomething pop singer Kate Miller-Heidke and her husband Keir Nuttall already had a gold album and a major label deal in Australia when they entered the contest. Is this contest simply a lower-budget version of the Grammies, a major label circle jerk with zero acknowledgment of what the listening public might prefer? In other words, considering its association with the major labels, is the deck stacked against artists who don’t fit the cookie-cutter corporate mold?
The song that won in the rock category, by Kristopher Roe of the Ataris was even worse, an even more cliched emo-pop song. “The only thing that matters is following your heart, and eventually you’ll get it right,” Roe strains, affecting an intensity of emotion that his band’s third-rate Good Charlotte imitation reaches for halfheartedly before giving up. “Being grown up isn’t half as fun as growing up,” Roe asserts, a tautology for the comfortable upper middleclass children he envisions as a customer base. In case you’re not familiar with the band, they achieved some recent notoriety by recording an earnest Green Day style cover of a Don Henley song. The ersatz emotion recurs with the second-place winner, Quebecois emo-pop band Tailor Made Fable’s A Case of Mistaken Identity. At least the third-place winner, Irish band Chrome Horse’s Reflections of a Madman shows some passion, even if the verse is a blatant ripoff of the Ventures’ Egyptian Reggae.
A look through the rest of the winners didn’t turn up much of anything worthwhile either. The second-place winner in the World Music category wasn’t remotely exotic: Leni Stern’s 1,000 Stars is a vapid semi-acoustic pop song in the style of the grand prize winner. Americana winner Kevin Meisel’s Cruising for Paradise is a third-rate Jimmy Buffett pop number with a little mandolin overdubbed to give it that down-home Americana flavor. Jazz winners the LeBoeuf Bros. Quartet’s Code Word at least shows some promise, even if it it’s not exactly edgy. And in case cutting-edge lyrics are your thing, for a laugh, here are the winners in the Lyrics-Only category.
In case you haven’t figured all this out by now, the winners here may actually be the best of what the judges had to work with. Consider – would your favorite cool band be caught dead entering a generic corporate talent search like this one? Imagine for a minute a first-class group like the French Exit at Emergenza. They’d clear the room in seconds flat.
Every day, our top 666 songs of alltime countdown gets one step closer to #1. Saturday’s song is #417:
Tom Waits – Everything Goes to Hell
We argued back and forth over whether to keep this one on the list. Of course Waits is great, everybody loves Waits. Which is why the debate arose – why give space on the top 666 to somebody so well-known when we could give a shout out to a great band that nobody’s ever heard of? In the end, Waits won out: this eerie, vibraphone-laced poison pill is pretty much his definitive song. From Blood Money, 2004; mp3s are everywhere. The link above is the stream at grooveshark.
Every day, our top 666 songs of alltime countdown gets one step closer to #1. Wednesday’s song is #420:
Jack Grace – Let Your Mind Do the Talking
The charismatic New York country singer’s finest and darkest hour as a songwriter. This is a haunting, somewhat epic minor-key anthem about a guy out in the sticks somewhere slowly and inexorably losing it. There’s a rough mix on Grace’s Staying Out All Night cd, as well as a live bootleg or two kicking around: in the years when he was a regular in the band, the late Drew Glackin would play lapsteel on this one, bringing the intensity to redline with his fiery solos.
Like any other style of music that’s currently played, oldtimey music keeps evolving, maybe as much as it did eighty years ago before it went out of vogue, then eventually started leaking out of the archives, became retro and in demand again. Plus ca change. At the front of the parade are New York expats the Wiyos, best known for their frenetic live shows, but they also put out good cds and this one, their latest, is excellent. Recorded live to two-track tape, it maintains the energy and immediacy of 1920s blues and hillbilly music. Main songwriter Parrish Ellis’ playing on resonator guitar, five-string banjo and banjo uke is spiky and inspired, matched by his bandmates Michael Farkas on harmonica and washboard, Joseph Dejarnette on upright bass and Teddy Weber, mainly on acoustic guitar. Lyrically, their songs typically take on a period vernacular, particularly with the catalog of funeral requests on the rather eerie Dying Crapshooter’s Blues and cd’s opening track, the tongue-in-cheek hellraising anthem Jack and Boone.
The cd’s strongest suit is its diversity, matching the stark, minor-key stuff with the rueful country string band ballad Hudson Valley Line – “You were gone before you came through the pines” – and the gorgeous, more-apt-than-ever workingman’s lament Silver Spoon. To the band’s further credit, the cheese factor is kept at a minimum – while this is a band that isn’t above using as kazoo for a solo, this isn’t a silly cd (although that song about ants in pants is). Fans of all the A-list, popular retro people – Tom Waits, AA Bondy, the Squirrel Nut Zippers and the Moonlighters will all dig this. The Wiyos play Joe’s Pub on Mar 7 at 7:30 PM
First-rate noir rock by probably the first-ever good band to be frontpaged at the CMJ site. On My Blacks Don’t Match, Gaines’ second cd, the musicianship is terrific, the songs are inspired and tuneful, the arrangements are purist and even the production is first-class. If you can get past the vocals with this – indie rock types won’t notice or care, but purists will have a hard time with some of them – you’re in for a real treat. The weak link here is Gaines himself, who sang perfectly fine on his previous cd Hit or Miss but now seems to be flailing all over the place for an identity – he can’t decide whether he wants to be Nick Cave or Tom Waits, when who he really ought to be is himself. Drop the pose, drop the persona, guy, you’ll be glad you did someday.
Much of this cd will remind New York fans of the weary, 4 AM gutter jazz poetry of Blasco Ballroom spiced with anthemic Nick Cave Romanticism, Leonard Cohen gloom, boozy Waits saloon jazz and even the ominous nocturnalia of Botanica. The cd kicks off with Nightshade, a fast noir blues with a gypsy tinge a la Firewater before they went all South Asian. Track two, She Says She Does is sardonic, minimalist and dismissive, somewhere between Steve Wynn and vintage Iggy with acoustic guitar and a vintage soul horn chart. “The hits get harder/The kisses get shorter/Find me a porter/I can’t carry these bags anymore,” Gaines complains.
The snide anti-nostalgia anthem Good Old Days (Wash Away) builds to a fast, scurrying chorus with more horns soaring over dirty guitars: “What’s so good about the good old days?” Snowdrift is a dead ringer for Nick Cave in stark ballad mode, guitar feedback ringing eerily in the distance for extra ambience. The low-key noir vibe continues with the laid-back Tripped Down Memory and its tasty bed of watery flanged guitars.
Hey Napoleon, with its Peter Gunn bassline, Keystone Kops horns and careening guitar reverts to a vintage Firewater feel; Midnight, which follows, brings it down again with its strung-out wee-hours atmospherics: “I see no reason why I should be sincere.” The Litterati is an imaginative, pretty spot-on spoof of an unlikely target; Hallelujahville is a smartly sarcastic, swaying country ballad that screams out for a deadpan, unaffected lead vocal. The cd winds up with the Lou Reed-inflected Very Different Times and and the actually somewhat anguished Speechless: “I broke my fingers keeping them crossed for you/And the cross I bear is broken too.” Give this band credit, they really know their noir. This is one of those albums that sounds better the later the hour and the smaller the crowd – and foreshadows even better things for the band as they evolve. Darren Gaines and the Key Party play the cd release show for this one at 8 PM on March 14 at the Gershwin Hotel.