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Joan Armatrading, Barenaked Ladies, She & Him, Frank Black, Holly Golightly and Scott McKeon

By Brian Baker · April 5th, 2010 · I Shall Be Released

Not a lot to pontificate about at the top here this week. I was sick most of last week, which kept me on task, since — thanks to packed sinuses, tissue breaks and an abundance of screen staring — every task took three times as long to complete. A single 800-word story took me nearly seven hours to write, with at least an hour spent on the pointless exercise of moving the words “influences” and “inspirations” around within a paragraph to almost no discernible effect.

I’m feeling considerably better now, but having burned so much time and effort last week on what ultimately turned out to be relatively little I find myself slightly behind the eight ball this week. Therefore I’ll keep this introduction mercifully short, particularly since I seem to have adopted last week’s 1,000-yard stare as a regular and spectacularly unproductive component of my work regimen. And I still have one more review to write at this juncture.

Maybe I’m not quite as well as I think I am. At any rate, read on, reader …

Generally I can keep a fairly objective viewpoint as a reviewer, but where Joan Armatrading is concerned, my objectivity is somewhat compromised. Not that she gets a free pass, mind you; I held her feet to the fire for the mildly weak Sleight of Hand in the mid-’80s, but ultimately all things are forgiven when it comes to Armatrading.

Joan and I go way back. I was introduced to her island-flavored Folk Pop on FM radio in 1978, got the full indoctrination from my best friend’s roommate in college and even convinced my notoriously picky and soon-to-be ex-wife of Armatrading’s musical and emotional genius. It’s a testament to Joan’s brilliance that my love of her work survived my divorce and the fact that my ex wound up feeling almost as strongly as I did about her.

I built extraordinary new Armatrading memories with my subsequent girlfriend/eventual wife. We saw Joan in concert in Italy on our honeymoon, followed her growth into muscular Pop and Rock and I had the heart-stopping thrill of interviewing and writing about her after the release of 1995’s What’s Inside.

And because my feelings for Armatrading’s work are deeply woven into my personal history, I know the difference between a good and a great Armatrading album. I know that her ballads are best when they retain a sense of the power and intensity that she unleashes on her uptempo songs, which in turn are strengthened by her impeccable sense of delicacy and grace.

That’s a pretty good description of Armatrading’s approach on her latest album, This Charming Life, which in some ways continues in the vein of her last album, 2007’s Grammy-nominated Into the Blues. The difference is that Armatrading gets back to some of the Pop exuberance of her work in the ’80s, particularly on The Key and its signature single, “Drop the Pilot.” In fact, some of Armatrading’s guitar solos on This Charming Life (she plays everything but drums on the album) are reminiscent of Adrian Belew, who accompanied her on The Key.

As usual, it’s the range of This Charming Life that defines its excellence, from the chunky/sinewy Prog/Jazz/Blues of “Heading Back to New York City” and the nuanced Pop Blues of “Love Love Love” to the synth-dipped, Annie Lennox-flavored “Goddess of Change” and the majestic and shimmering “Promises.”

A deft combination of her considerable musical talent and her artful lyrics, which circumnavigate the tricky waters around the heart with the passionate skill of a songwriting Magellan, This Charming Life is simply Joan Armatrading displaying all the skills that she’s honed to a surgical edge over the past three and a half decades.

Ask any chef (except that Emeril guy, he gives me the heebiest of jeebies) and most will tell you the best way to adapt a recipe is to replace an ingredient, not delete it. To eliminate a flavor from the formula is to risk a dish that is bland and potentially formless. Good kitchen advice works just as well in the studio, but apparently no one passed that bon mot onto Barenaked Ladies, who have decided to continue as a quartet after last year’s solo defection of founding co-frontman/songwriter Steven Page.

How does Page’s absence impact the freshly downsized BNL on All in Good Time, their first foursome outing? Not much, as it happens.

All in Good Time finds BNL’s remaining members — vocalist/guitarist Ed Robertson, keyboardist/guitarist/vocalist Kevin Hearn, bassist/vocalist Jim Creegan, drummer/vocalist Tyler Stewart — each stepping up their game to compensate for the loss of Page. The album’s balladic first single, “You Run Away,” could be interpreted as the band’s feelings about Page’s departure, while the smooth, soulful Pop of “Summertime” is R&B with an Indie Rock bite. “Another Heartbreak” is big Rock balladry, the biggest hit Phil Collins never had, followed by BNL’s goofy Pop Rap schtick on “Four Seconds,” a Teutonic carnival with a Kurt Weill soundtrack and an Indie Pop sensibility.

“Every Subway Car” is a synth-drenched Todd Rundgren-meets-Bruce Hornsby power ballad, “Jerome” is a quirky Pop tango, “I Have Learned” combines slabs of Classic Rock with a quiet power, “Golden Boy” is the standard BNL straight Pop jaunt, “The Love We’re In” is BNL’s shot at a weary Eagles love song and “Watching the Northern Lights” closes the album in a gently insistent manner, like Genesis at its chart-topping best.

Overall, there seems to be a lessening of BNL’s patented smug cleverness on All in Good Time — perhaps a direct result of Page’s absence, perhaps a sign of the strain of dealing with it — and an increased emphasis on pure melodicism, indicating that Barenaked Ladies have successfully turned the Page.

Holly Golightly has long been associated with all things Garage, from being the voice and face of Billy Childish’s chickcentric trash Rock project Thee Headcoatees to her higher profile role as Jack White’s muse in The White Stripes and subsequent solo releases. In recent years, however, Golightly has been steering toward an Americana direction, particularly on her last few discs with partner Lawyer Dave in their twang-fueled duo known as Holly Golightly and the Broke-Offs.

Medicine County, their latest collaboration in this configuration, finds the pair making more frequent references to Golightly’s Garage past even as they ratchet up the traditionalism by including a quartet of Country/Folk covers. The album begins with the one-two punch of “Forget It” and “Two Left Feet,” the former a smoky spy/surf motif on the subject of love, all slinky guitar and mystery organ, and the latter a freewheeling slide Blues on the joys of lacking rhythm that mirrors its subject by devolving into a humorously lurching bridge.

The atmospheric title track is a Country/Blues hymn detailing the perils of living in a dry county, “I Can’t Lose” is a gentle Cajun romp, “Murder in My Mind” recalls the roots Blues of Timbuk 3 with a shade more authenticity and “Escalator” is a rube joke about the danger of moving stairs that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Southern Culture on the Skids album.

There is a certain uneven quality that runs through Medicine County, but it could be argued that same quality has run through Golightly’s career for the past 20 years, so it’s hardly a surprise. For those of us who adore Holly Golightly for her quirky and erratic sonic directions, Medicine County is just right.

One has to wonder if Matt Ward has somehow succeeded in having himself cloned. While maintaining an active solo presence in a variety of guises, he joined up with Conor Oberst, Jim James and Mike Mogis in the Monsters of Folk and then found time to put together She & Him, a naively wonderful duo with pixieish actress Zooey Deschanel which grew from their mutual involvement in the indie film The Go-Getter, where the pair sang Richard and Linda Thompson’s “When I Get to the Border” over the closing credits.

The duo’s 2008 debut, Volume One, showcased Deschanel’s gorgeously simple songwriting style and appropriately coy vocal style along with Ward’s adaptable guitar technique and sympathetically strong arranging ethic, and wound up near the top of a whole lot of year-end lists as a result.

On their appropriately titled sophomore album, Volume Two, Ward and Deschanel pick things up where they left them two years ago. Combining Indie Pop cool with an expansive ’60s Pop radio perspective, the pair come off like the second coming of Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra. Ward might rival Hazelwood in the producing/arranging genius category, but Deschanel trumps Sinatra with her impeccable songwriting skills — Nancy would likely never have come up with anything as satisfyingly clever as “Orpheus melted the heart of Persephone but I never had yours,” the opening line from the indescribable “Don’t Look Back.”

The proof of Deschanel’s writing ability is that her originals, particularly the Carole King-flavored “Home” and the twang-and-lope of “I’m Gonna Make It Better,” stand shoulder to shoulder with the covers she and Ward knock out of the park: NRBQ’s “Drivin’ in My Car” and the oft-recorded kiss-off classic, “Gonna Get Along Without You Now.” There might not be a couple of tree rings worth of artistic growth on Volume Two, but when you’re dealing with sunshine-y Pop the goal is less evolutionary and more authenticity, and She & Him are as classic as a chart hit from 1966.

It's a clear fact that Frank Black — the former Charles Thompson who transformed himself into Black Francis as the co-frontman of the Pixies — has had his share of misfires in his solo career, both on his own and with his band, The Catholics. But the volume of Black’s work since the Pixies’ demise in 1994 makes equally clear that he is a prolific songwriter who is unafraid to take chances and that he is perfectly willing to forget the last album and move on to the next one.

For Non Stop Erotik, his 18th album in the past decade and a half, Black shows his re-energized Pixies colors by making this his first solo album to be bannered with his band name.

If the nomenclature seems a subtle difference, the range on Non Stop Erotik is blaringly obvious, as Black veers from blistering Television-tinged Indie Rock (“Lake of Sin”) to Grant Lee Phillips-tributes-Iggy Pop Folk Pop ("O My Tidy Sums”) to all-too-brief Shins-on-Prog balladry (“Rabbits”) to towering Pixies outtakes (“Six Legged Man,” “Corinna”). For further contrast, there’s the piano/synth lilt of the title track, a cover of the Flying Burrito Brothers’ “Wheels” and Black’s slinky homage to Chris Isaak (“Wild Son”).

When Frank Black/Black Francis cranks out a killer like Non Stop Erotik, it’s easy to overlook the lesser lights in his catalog.

Scott McKeon started playing guitar at age 4, made his debut on British television at 7 and snagged Guitarist Magazine’s “Young Guitarist of the Year” honor at 11. Prodigies don’t come much younger or better than that. McKeon’s debut album, 2007’s Can’t Take No More, earned the young guitarist tons of praise and more than a few references to the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan, and while those comparisons weren’t unwarranted McKeon’s work on his sophomore album, Trouble, seems more informed by contemporary six-stringers than the classicists of old.

On Trouble, McKeon exudes a soulful streak that bears more than a passing resemblance to John Mayer’s more balladic moments, as on “All That We Were.” At the same time, when he flexes his muscles and pushes the needles, the result hews closer to the electric Funk and power Soul of Lenny Kravitz and Ben Harper (“Broken Man,” “Capture Me”). McKeon’s guitar arsenal is potent, from a supple subtlety that rivals Mark Knopfler (“Scarecrow”) to a Blues Rock range that would make Warren Haynes smile (“What I’ve Become”).

When McKeon references masters like Eric Clapton or Jeff Beck, it’s closer in tone and intensity to their more mature and less incendiary third act works, and that might be McKeon’s most impressive accomplishment. Most shit-hot 23-year-old guitar prodigies will choose to channel the adrenalized flash of Hendrix and Clapton, but Scott McKeon prefers to pursue a more considered and encompassing approach on his journey to true guitar heroism.



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