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Michelle Shocked, Dave Alvin & the Guilty Women, Chris Gaffney and Hatcham Social

By Brain Baker · May 29th, 2009 · I Shall Be Released

This week’s posting has been winnowed by a killer combination of my MidPoint Music Festival judging duties and a long holiday weekend, so try to contain your disappointment at the shortage of reviews. I’m even skipping this week’s vinyl burn because of my recent more-work-than-clock syndrome, and I’ve got a stack next to the turntable that I’m itching to get down on disc so I may double up and talk about two once I’m out of these overscheduled woods. In the meantime, enjoy this week’s appetizers.

Since the very beginning of her career, Michelle Shocked has found ways to frame her hyperliberal political stance within a broad musical structure. Her bootleg debut, The Texas Campfire Tapes, and her major label debut, Short Sharp Shocked, were brilliant evocations of early 20th century Guthriesque Folk. But even as she amassed a considerable fan base with that style, Shocked began dabbling in Jump Blues, Country, Roots Rock, Western Swing, Latin Blues and Gospel, challenging her followers to expand their musical horizons along with their political and social consciousness.

Shocked’s new album, Soul of My Soul, is perhaps the most straightforward recording of her nearly quarter century run. Shocked telegraphs her intention on The Stones swagger of Soul’s opening track, “Love’s Song,” which she then follows up with the powerful Joan Baez-meets-Tom Waits Folk balladry of “Other People.” Those two songs also establish Shocked’s lyrical range on Soul of My Soul, the former inspired by her relationship with artist David Willardson, the latter sparked by her unrelenting anger at the Bush administration. Whether Shocked is rolling in Van Morrison-tinged Soul (“Liquid Prayer”) or gear-jamming through Steve Forbert-shaded Roots Rock (“The Ballad of the Battle of the Ballot and the Bullet”), her lyrics make perfectly clear who inflames her passion and who boils her blood.

Most new bands utter the words “Classic Rock” as though their mouths were filled with spoiled mayonnaise and bees. Alabama natives/Portland, OR residents Kevin and Anita Robinson have spent the last decade using Viva Voce (Latin for “living voice” but loosely translated as “word of mouth”) to prove that, in the right hands and with the proper motivation, Classic Rock can be a potent force in modern music.

Viva Voce’s last album, 2006’s Get Yr Blood Sucked Out — the band’s fourth overall and debut for Barsuk — was steeped in Rock classicism but the band’s latest, Rose City, finds them drawing more inspiration from Shoegaze density and psychedelic intensity. Rose City’s opening volley, “Devotion,” has the insistent swirl of My Bloody Valentine, while “Die a Little” is guided by a darker Pop spirit and “Octavio” and “Midnight Sun” have the hypnotic Art Rock power of mid-’70s John Cale. The Robinsons never forget that Viva Voce, regardless of their distant influences, is first and foremost a contemporary band and Rose City rings with the pair’s respect for the past and passion for the present.

Last year, local singer/songwriter Maurice Mattei wrote a batch of songs that were inspired by the names he found on the directory at the Kenwood Towne Centre.

He assembled them in a project he titled, appropriately enough, Kenwood Towne Center. The disc’s vocals-and-acoustic-guitar demo format was intended to be an ephemeral representation of the songs, released on CD-R and sporadically distributed while Mattei and his group The Tempers (bassist Bill Grapes, drummer Mike Grimm, harpist Rick Howell) worked on fuller band arrangements.

With the cleverly titled Mauled, Mattei and The Tempers officially release KTC’s themed songs including a handful that didn’t make the original set (like the song that originally launched the concept, the Elvis Costello-touched “Crabtree & Evelyn”). As starkly powerful as Mattei’s songs were on KTC, he and the band invest these versions with a fresh energy. There’s the Graham Parker/Paul Westerberg swing of “Metropark,” the Dylan/T-Bone Burnett guitarslinger lope of “Ann Taylor” and the Neil Young-meets-Dashiell Hammett Folk noir of “Hollister.” Mattei’s bare bones methodology on Kenwood Towne Center made for a compelling listen but adding The Tempers to the mix on Mauled gives the songs new textures and tones that were only hinted at in their original incarnation. Impossibly, Maurice Mattei has made great songs even greater.

When accordionist Chris Gaffney lost his battle with liver cancer last year, the immense void he left in his passing rippled through the music community like the concentric circles from a thrown stone into a glassy pond. Gaffney was a solo artist, one of the Hacienda Brothers, a member of Dave Alvin’s Guilty Men and a songwriter with an immense reputation amongst his musical peers. It is that last role that Alvin capitalized on when he organized Man of Somebody’s Dreams, a tribute to his accordionist and best friend.

The roll call on Man of Somebody’s Dreams is a who’s who of contemporary Roots music and a potent testament to the friendships that Gaffney made along his musical path. Joe Ely does a spirited version of “Lift Your Leg,” Los Lobos smolders on the title track, Peter Case tears through “Six Nights a Week,” the Iguanas swing and sway with Tex Mex abandon on “Get Off My Back Lucy” and Alejandro Escovedo invests the post-Viet Nam ballad “1968” with a palpable heartbreak. Two of the most moving moments on Somebody’s Dreams are Alvin’s very personal dedication on “Artesia,” and the album’s closing track provided by Gaffney himself on his final recording, a prescient and ironic reading of “The Guitars of My Dead Friends.” Although Nashville routinely rejected Gaffney as a songwriter, the illustrious guest list (further including Calexico, James McMurtry, Robbie Fulks, Big Sandy & Los Straitkackets, John Doe and Boz Scaggs) and devastating performances on Man of Somebody’s Dreams are solid evidence of Chris Gaffney’s talent and, perhaps most importantly, his enormous creative spirit.

The other byproduct of Gaffney’s passing was that Alvin was creatively ready to hit the studio but emotionally unable to reassemble the Guilty Men with the gaping hole left by his friend’s death. The answer presented itself when Alvin was approached last year by organizers of San Francisco’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival to do something different than his previous appearances and he blurted out that he’d put together an all-girl band. The subsequent unrehearsed festival gig (featuring Alvin and vocalist Christy McWilson, violinist Amy Farris, bassist Sarah Brown, drummer Lisa Pankratz, violinist Laurie Lewis, guitarist Nina Gerber and lap steeler Cindy Cashdollar) was so enthusiastically received that Alvin immediately began planning to record his newly minted Guilty Women.

The studio version of Dave Alvin & the Guilty Women was captured to a great extent in exactly the same way as the stage version; with virtually no advance preparation. In order to unify the sound, Alvin decided up front that he would stick to acoustic guitar, Gerber would play electric and Cashdollar’s lap and steel guitars would link the two. With arrangements (and material) decided largely on the fly, Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women has a wonderfully intuitive feel, never hinting at the hasty nature of the group’s birth.

Whether pounding away on The Blasters’ classic “Marie Marie,” easing into Alvin’s “Downey Girl,” burning up McWilson’s “Weight of the World” or swinging through the gorgeous “River Under the Road,” Sarah Brown’s co-write with Anna Egge and Jimmy Dale Gilmore, Alvin and the Guilty Women sound like an outfit that has been together through thick and thin for years. Every bit as important as the chemistry between the Guilty Women as a band is the undeniable connection between Alvin and McWilson, who bring an amazing John Doe/Exene Cervenka synergy to their singing partnership. It may be awhile before Alvin reconvenes the Guilty Men. Until he’s ready, it’s ladies night.

After a succession of acclaimed UK singles, London’s Hatcham Social have finally birthed its full length debut, a gloriously moody addition to its canon. Following in the tradition of joyfully melancholic mope fiends like Echo & the Bunnymen, Lloyd Cole and Orange Juice, Hatcham Social crafts an incredibly nuanced sound from the improbable density of Shoegaze, the dour jangle of ’80s Indie Pop and the swaggering pulse of ’60s Beat Pop.

Tunnel’s opener, “Crocodile,” offers up a pummeling rhythm section and insistent guitar reminiscent of vintage Echo, an approach they subsequently dirty up with a New Wave dissonance on the chaotic “I Can’t Cure My Pure Evil.” Elsewhere, “Sidewinder” churns out melodic sheets of noise like a more poppy version of Jesus and Mary Chain, and “Hypnotize Terrible Eyes” and “Give Me the Gift” fold all of Hatcham Social’s gifts into a compelling simplicity that U2 would love to revisit. Missing from the American version of Tunnel is Hatcham Social’s version of “Jabberwocky,” where vocalist/guitarist Toby Kidd recites the Lewis Carroll classic while he, bassist David Fineberg and drummer Finn Kidd create a melodious jittery cacophony underneath, creating the illusion of an East London Brian Eno fronting Blue Aeroplanes. (It’s worth seeking out on-line.)

While Hatcham Social is far from abrasive, there is a somewhat unsettling quality to Tunnel that may be off-putting to those who prefer a sweeter sound. But for those who appreciate a bitter jolt of ultracaffeinated jangle with their guitar Pop, Hatcham Social just may be the next little thing.



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