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George Usher, Patton Oswalt, The Melloncollies, Rev. Horton Heat and Blue Ridge Rangers

By Brian Baker · September 4th, 2009 · I Shall Be Released

Four weeks ago, I was drinking a beer and staring at a small lake in northern Michigan. Right now I feel like there‘s a cement mixer parked on my chest. What a difference a month makes.

My wife’s shoulder is healing nicely and won’t require surgery, which is great news, and she’s regained enough mobility to get up early with our daughter and get some breakfast in her before her bus comes. And she’s getting better at getting dressed in the morning but I have to keep reminding her not to overdo it. So I continue to be the alpha dog as far as the majority of chores and procedurals around the house are concerned. And with MidPoint Music Festival writing assignments and the standard stuff waiting in the wings for me this week, I feel as though I’m one deadline away from an episode of hysterical blindness. So I’ll wrap this up while I can still see the keyboard.

For years, George Usher has been a utility guitarist for any number of New York Pop bands, including Beat Rodeo, The Bongos and The Schramms, while maintaining one of the most consistently cool solo careers in Indie music, both alone and with his bands (The Decoys, The House of Usher, The George Usher Group).

In recent years, debilitating health issues have kept Usher from his musical pursuits and he’s just now getting back to his previous creative form. Usher’s new album, Yours and Not Yours, his first in over a decade, finds the gifted Pop singer/songwriter channeling his impulses in a decidedly acoustic direction, filling out his moving Folk Pop tunes with Baroque Pop ornamentation like cello, chamber strings and horns. “Love By Any Other Name” could be a lost Paul McCartney track from the Revolver/Rubber Soul era, “Somewhere North of the Sky” and “The Stranger Came” exhibit the same kind of exuberant melancholy that Michael Penn has perfected and “Jericho’s Mistress” shimmers and sighs with a charged Psych Folk atmosphere. Meanwhile, “I Would Have Done Anything For You” finds Usher accessing his inner Burt Bacharach and “Unforgivable Sin” could have been a hit for The Everly Brothers four decades ago. Although Usher’s electric Power Pop output has been typically unbeatable, his acoustic Folk songcraft on Yours and Not Yours easily ranks with his most accomplished and impressive.

When I sat down at the computer to write tonight, I was beat to a pissy pulp. The instant I settled my fingers on the keyboard, I began to fall asleep. “Crap on a cracker,” I barely thought to myself, “there’s no earthly way I can spark up the brain cells necessary for autonomic survival functions let alone the higher cognitive skills that will allow me to write intelligently.” But I have a mountain and a half of work to do and I have to chip away at it tonight or by morning the labor gnomes who live in my sump pump pit will magically create at least another half a mountain of work. What to do?

I chose to listen to Patton Oswalt, the funniest person on the planet right now. And within the first 20 seconds of his new album, My Weakness Is Strong, my exhaustion was a thing of the past. All of those laughing cliches? Did ’em. Laughed ’til my sides ached? Check. Laughed ’til I cried? Check. Laughed ’til my jaw locked and my scalp burned and I thought I had TMJ and shingles? Check. I even laughed so hard that, at one point, I nearly shit my pants.

Literally. It’s one thing to use a figurative turn of phrase, it’s quite another to use an office chair as a toilet.

What was so funny? Patton talking about texting and frontier babies with the rickets and ass belly fat and the Lucky Charms conspiracy and depression as a happy puppy and Uncle Touchy’s Naked Puzzle Basement and a Sumerian prankster god and Fucksquatch at the orgy and a sex doll made out of butter and shotgun shells and James Bond and a toilet choked with poop and time travel nine years in the past. And he’s not merely fall down funny, but wickedly political. Patton’s observation about every conservative’s observation that comedians will miss George Bush? “I would happily give back the 10 minutes, tops, I wrote about George Bush if we weren’t torturing people and our money wasn’t on fire,” he says. Patton Oswalt is dark and topical and smart and funny with extra funny and a side of funny. He’s like George Carlin and Dennis Leary and Dennis Miller in a hobbit’s body, a curmudgeon with a razor wit and an endless supply of cynicism and pop culture references. My Weakness is Strong is brilliant and hysterical. Shit before you press play. I’m serious.

Guitarist/singer/songwriter Simon Erani understands the all-important mechanics of Power Pop and his New York trio, The Melloncollies, benefits greatly from his understanding. Just as importantly, he has an intuitive feel for the way other musical forms dovetail in the genre, making a cool jigsaw picture from the perfectly fitted pieces of New Wave, Punk and Garage Rock, all of it framed by the infectious harmonies and electric effervescence of Power Pop. But perhaps Erani’s greatest gift is in his understanding of Pop’s soul, and it is in that area where The Melloncollies shine the brightest.

On Goodbye Cruel World, Erani delivers his lyrics of longing and disenfranchised love with a gruff sweetness while guitarist/bassist Peter Claro and drummer Jeffrey Braha create a pure Pop foundation that pulses with a vibrant urgency. There are elements of The Wallflowers’ expansive sound in The Melloncollies’ presentation but there are also flecks of Elvis Costello’s early jittery Punk Wave energy (“Lonliest Boy”), ’80s Synth Pop (“Bullet in My Sunday”), Bruce Springsteen’s populist Rock (“Misery”) and The Gin Blossoms’ sweet guitar crunch (“Simple Naive Someone”). “Money Money Money” is the sound of Bob Dylan fronting Cheap Trick, “You You Yeah Yeah” stomps like The Romantics at their red-leather best and “All I Want” quivers with Jellyfish-tributes-The-Beatles passion. If Goodbye Cruel World is where The Melloncollies start, the rest of the band’s journey is bound to be a thing of Pop beauty.

When the Rev. Horton Heat debuted on Sub Pop nearly two decades ago, he and his crack band (some might say his band on crack) rammed a million volts of passion and energy square up the ass of Rockabilly, fusing the genre’s twangier aspects with the snarling jackslap of Punk, creating a hypercaffeinated, smartass offshoot of Country. Over the years, the Rev has moved the needle more towards the middle of the spectrum, employing more traditional elements of Rockabilly into his material without losing the frenetic spark that has always (well, generally) distinguished his work.

For his first album of new material (not counting his recent Christmas album), the Rev drew on the realization that his live audience was responding most favorably to his honky-tonkier tales of drinking and infidelity and the foibles of — as a certain ex-governor once dubbed them — Joe Sixpacks. To that end, the Rev wrote and recorded an album’s worth of this long-cherished Country tradition for the aptly titled Laughin’ and Cryin’ with the Rev. Horton Heat.

While longtime Rev fans may miss the volume knob’s influence on the proceedings, the Rev’s guitar work is as supple and sweet as ever and the songs usually stop short of pure novelty (although “Ain’t No Saguaro in Texas” creeps over the line). “Aw the Humanity” equates the metaphorical crash and burn of a failed relationship with the literal crash and burn of the Hindenburg, and “Oh God! Doesn’t Work in Vegas” is the Country music version of an observation that Bill Cosby made in the ’70s (and is still just as valid today), while “Beer Holder” and “Please Don’t Take the Baby to the Liquor Store” are Country music concepts taken to a ridiculous but vastly entertaining extreme. It’s hard telling where the Rev might steer his Crankabilly motorcade next but for now, Laughin’ and Cryin’ works just fine.

Three and a half decades ago, when John Fogerty found himself in a solo situation outside of the context of Creedence Clearwater Revival, his greatest and most identifiable musical aggregation, he decided to embark on a more Country-based direction. His vision was so different from anything he’d ever done that he chose a completely new name for the project, christening it the Blue Ridge Rangers; in addition, he decided to cover traditional Country songs rather than write originals. All of this was fine in theory, but Fogerty was a one-man band in the studio and the resulting recording wound up sounding like a slightly twangier version of CCR. While he had a couple of hits from the album (“Hearts of Stone” and his cover of Hank Williams “Jambalaya”), Fogerty was less than enchanted with the results. He abandoned any further BRR ideas and even scrapped his Hoodoo album, which had been done at around the same time.

When Fogerty finally decided to revisit the Blue Ridge Rangers concept, he went into it from a very different starting point. He chose to stock the studio with appropriately talented musicians (including Buddy Miller, Greg Leisz, Jay Bellerose and Herb Pedersen, among others). Like the first BRR outing, Fogerty chose to cover songs rather than write for the project — cleverly titled The Blue Ridge Rangers Rides Again — but this time he cast his net a little wider, picking Folk and Pop songs that he and his band could steer into Country territory. Songs like John Denver’s “Back Home Again,” Rick Nelson’s “Garden Party” and John Prine’s “Paradise” already possess a considerable Country flavor but Fogerty and his session twangers amp up the atmosphere for a little more traditional authenticity.

Fogerty proves he can work similar magic on poppier material, transforming Delaney & Bonnie’s “Neverending Song of Love” and his own “Change in the Weather” into bona fide Country tracks. John Fogerty doesn’t need to prove anything to anyone at this juncture in his legendary career, but the success of The Blue Ridge Rangers Rides Again may well be more about Fogerty proving something to himself.



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