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Mike Stern, Mindy Smith, Robert Pollard and Peter Mulvey

By Brian Baker · August 12th, 2009 · I Shall Be Released

Vacations have a wonderful recuperative quality when they’re done right. Relax, recharge, renew. And that’s typically how we approach things during our family breaks in Michigan: sitting by the lake with a book or a magazine or music and, to paraphrase Otis Redding, watching the boats roll in.

There’s an eagle’s nest across the lake, so we do a fair amount of bird watching. My sister-in-law and I were lucky enough to witness both parents and all three babies in flight one afternoon. We're usually in no big hurry to do anything in particular, and this trip was different only in the fact that we'd taken two weeks rather than our standard seven days, resulting in potentially double the restorative powers of a normal vacation.

The only side trip that we had really pencilled in was a visit to Mackinac Island, where we decided to return in order to do something we had never done on previous trips: rent bikes and pedal around the island. My brother-in-law further suggested that we should go late in the day, have dinner on the island, take the last ferry out and stick around to watch the lights come on across the Mackinac Bridge. It was a lovely day all the way around.

We also made the acquaintance of our cabin neighbors, area residents who spend a good deal of time at their lakeside retreat. Gary owns a local masonry company (he’s put a good deal of his products into my brother-in-law’s new permanent home on the lake), and he mixes up a mean margarita. I had five just to make sure the quality was consistent. It was. I look forward to seeing him, his family and his blender next summer.

We decided to wrap up our two weeks with a whitefish grill out with some of my wife’s family that had come up during our second week. We were in the middle of dinner at the picnic table in the yard when my wife got up to get a glass of water, swinging her leg over the picnic table bench seat and getting up at the same time. Her flip flop caught on the seat and when she attempted to regain her balance, she stepped on an uneven stump in the grass. She went down fast and hard, and when we got her upright again, it was apparent something was wrong. She couldn’t move her left arm.

A trip to the emergency room revealed a sizable chip floating above her humerus. Tomorrow’s cat scan will steer us toward surgery or healing and physical therapy. She’s fairly set as to which direction she wants this to go.

Although I would clearly have preferred that Melissa’s mishap had never happened, there’s an old saying that plainly states “everything happens for a reason.” As we were leaving the ER, a nurse directed us out to the lobby from her hallway office. Something in her voice hit me deep in the cortex, and when I looked at her face I knew that I knew her; a quick conversation confirmed my hunch.

She and I went through the two-year design program at Ferris State College 30 years ago. I hadn’t seen her since we left school and hadn’t talked to her since a phone call back in the mid-’80s, after which I lost track of her. She gave me her e-mail address, and I dropped her a line yesterday. I hope this is the beginning of a renewed friendship. All thanks to my wife’s busted-up shoulder.

Now to the music … at least some of the reviews below were written out longhand while staring at beautiful Pickerel Lake in northern Michigan. And keep in mind while you read these words that a good many of them were accompanied by a fairly well-stocked bar. And for the Bob Pollard album, that was probably appropriate.

From the very dawn of his prolific career, guitarist Mike Stern has contented himself with being the small name on the marquee and the big presence in the guitar slot, from his first gig in the mid-’70s with Blood Sweat & Tears to high profile stints with Billy Cobham, Miles Davis, Jaco Pastorius and The Brecker Brothers. In his storied solo career, Stern has had little difficulty generating considerable acclaim under his own banner, racking up five Grammy nominations and accolades including Best Jazz Guitarist of 1993 from Guitar Player readers and critics, the 2007 Miles Davis Award from the Montreal International Jazz Festival honoring his body of work, and being named one of DownBeat magazine’s 75 Great Guitarists on a list that drew from players dating back to the ’20s.

On Stern’s latest solo excursion, Big Neighborhood, the astonishing guitarist continues to explore the intersection of Jazz, Rock, Blues and Soul with thunderous power, intuitive brilliance and inventive fluidity.

Stern is a masterful stylist, shifting effortlessly from the purer Jazz forms of “Coupe de Ville” and “Bird Blue” to the frenetic Rock pace of the title track and the blistering Middle Eastern Jazz/Rock fusion on “Moroccan Roll” (both featuring able assistance from Steve Vai). On the Funk/Groove workouts “Check One” and “That’s All It Is,” Stern’s slinky intricacy is given a sinewy foundation by Medeski, Martin and Wood, masters of the form — both songs were accomplished unrehearsed, in just a couple of takes.

Some purists might take issue with Stern for not picking a side, but confining a guitarist with his eclectic skill set to a single genre would be like giving the wind a zip code. Just as ridiculous is the notion of five nominations and no Grammy; Mike Stern should be running out of trophy case space, not waiting for the first statue to arrive. Big Neighborhood is the Contemporary Jazz album of the year. Prove it, Grammy voters.

Over the course of a dozen years and three albums, Maia Sharp has proven to be both potent performer and universally appealing songwriter. Her three releases — 1997’s Hardly Glamour, 2002‘s Maia Sharp, 2005’s Fine Upstanding Citizen — have been critically acclaimed and her songs have been covered into hits by Bonnie Raitt, The Dixie Chicks, Trisha Yearwood and Carole King, among others. For her fourth album, Echo, Sharp impossibly amplifies all of the formidable skills she‘s exhibited throughout her career — an engaging gift for wordplay that encompasses wry humor and heartbreaking introspection and the ability to blend and transcend genres.

Echo‘s opener, “Polite Society,” jangles with the Roots Rock authority of a Tom Petty/Shawn Colvin collaboration, which Sharp sings with the clarity and power of Cass Elliott. From the Beatlesque melancholy of “John Q. Lonely” to the ethereally muscular Pop of “Death by Perfection” (featuring Raitt on vocals) to the slinky Blues/Pop of “Unbreakable” to the yearning ache of “Where Do I Begin.” Sharp shows herself to be a master of the singing/songwriting craft and a seductive musical alchemist, turning leaden genre cliches into melodic gold.

In the same vein as Patty Griffin, Lucy Kaplansky and the aforementioned Maia Sharp, Mindy Smith is an adroit musical craftswoman who fashions her sonic constructions from an effective combination of ethereal Pop, jangly Folk, twangy Country and melodic Rock with an intuitive sense of when to let each one take the reins, guiding a song to its most appropriate translation. Smith’s obvious talents are on full display on her fourth album, Stupid Love, with a soulful melancholy that nods to the burnished urban Pop of Suzanne Vega while propelling a set of songs that details the various stages of love.

Whether in giddy ascendancy or dysfunctional decline, Smith has a knack for capturing the delightful and desperate feelings of either extreme, and sometimes blurring the differences between the two. The moody yet jaunty “What Went Wrong” is a good example; Smith details the faux cures and bitter realities of a failed relationship to a propulsive soundtrack that is simultaneously joyous and heartbreaking. On “Highs and Lows,” Smith follows a similar arc while channeling the melodic Pop of Sam Phillips, the other avowed master of bouncy music that stings and soothes in equal measure, while shades of Shawn Colvin creep into the gentle swagger of “If I Didn’t Know Any Better” and the quiet truth of “Love Lost.”

Make no mistake, though: Mindy Smith is no mere coattail rider. Her songwriting talent and exquisite performance style is the equal — and in some cases, the better — of her like-minded peer group. You may think of them fleetingly on first listen, but subsequent spins will merely reinforce her amazing and singular abilities.

The second best thing that Robert Pollard ever did was to align himself and Guided By Voices with major indies like Matador and Merge, which helped raise the profile of Dayton’s favorite Pop son to an acceptably high cult level. The best thing Pollard ever did was to divest himself of official label affiliations, allowing him the freedom to self-release as many albums as his fevered creative id can spawn. And in the past year, that’s been a lot — two under his own name, two with his new band Boston Spaceships, two with his Todd Tobias collaborative Circus Devils and the debut of his partnership with former Cardinal Richard Davies, which they’ve christened Cosmos.

For Elephant Jokes, Pollard’s third solo album since last June (he’ll release an outtakes/B-side collection before the end of the year, as well as a third Boston Spaceships album), the prolific songwriter once again trumps his own aces with a 22-track, 46-minute Pop epistle that revisits all of his potent and subtle influences with the same swaggering gusto and youthful passion that fueled his earliest work two and a half decades ago. Echoes of The Who are a foregone conclusion in Pollard’s expanding sonic universe (“Desiring,” “Johnny Optimist,” “Symbols and Heads,” “Tattooed Lily”), but there are distinct whiffs of Pixies’ wild abandon (“When a Man Walks Away”), Captain Beefheart’s lysergic whimsy (“Perverted Eyelash”) and Brian Eno’s twisted clockwork Pop (“Accident Aero”), all layered with Pollard’s patented infectious riffs, profoundly weird lyrics and tremulously off-kilter yet somehow perfect vocals.

Anyone who would deny Pollard’s right to release the totality of his admittedly hyperactive songwriting impulses is a jaded Rock effete with a narrow and challenged attention span. One needn’t be a rabid fan of Robert Pollard to appreciate his unique genius, just a rabid fan of brilliantly quirky Rock music in general.

The concept of a concept album scares some people, at least a few of them recoiling at the thought of actually being forced to think about the music they’re listening to. Peter Mulvey has come up with a lovely compromise on his latest album, Letters From a Flying Machine; a quasi-concept album that offers a central theme while maintaining an individual song structure. His central thrust is an examination of the things in life that last and, by proxy, the things that matter most.

In addition to his typically wonderful Folk/Pop songwriting, Mulvey uses letters he's written to his nieces and nephews over the years as a linking device to propel Flying Machine to a threaded conclusion. As a result, Flying Machine is not only a great Peter Mulvey album, it’s simply a great album.

“Some People” hybridizes Dan Hicks, Steve Forbert and Loudon Wainwright III, mixing offbeat humor and razor sharp observational insight while “Windshield” injects brilliant acoustic Folk with electric textural atmosphere in telling the tale of rising against small-town desperation. The pointedly throbbing Folk Blues of “Dynamite Bill” pulses with the subtle swagger of Pat McDonald and the haunting, optimistic beauty of “Mailman” lilts like the best of David Wilcox. But some of the most moving moments on Letters From a Flying Machine are often in Mulvey’s universalized versions of his letters to his nieces and nephews, particularly his musings on mortality in “Bears” and the enormity and wide-eyed wonder of the universe in “Vlad the Astrophysicist.”

Mulvey’s songwriting skill has always been a marvel to behold, but in weaving wonderfully conceived narratives into Letters From a Flying Machine he's turned great storytelling into great art.



 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
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