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Sheryl Crow, Francis and the Lights, Jimmy Gnecco, Big Head Todd & the Monsters, Ruth Gerson and Frazey Ford

By Brian Baker · August 9th, 2010 · I Shall Be Released

To quote the effervescent Dame Edna, "Good night, possums!" I’m heading up to Michigan for two glorious weeks of R&R, although I will be taking a handful of CDs up to review while I’m vacationing, and those will be the reviews you’ll read when I’m back in the saddle later this month.

The difference, of course, is that instead of writing in the dank, windowless cell of the Bunker, I’ll be sitting by the lake, beer within reach, cool breeze stirring the trees, water lapping at the shore, music coming in at a gentle volume through the headphones while I scribble my thoughts in longhand on a scrap of parchment with a goose quill dipped in ink. OK, all but the last part. Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music would sound good in those circumstances. I might take it up just to test the theory.

I’ll likely be taking up a pile of CDs to check out, over and above the things I’ll be reviewing, as well as a few books to read, including George Carlin’s last offering, Steve Martin’s autobiography and a book about Johnny Cash and the untold story of the making of his Bitter Tears protest album in 1964. And I might find a couple more in my favorite used CD/book store in Petoskey when we hit town on the Saturday after we arrive.

Two weeks will go pretty quickly, but I’ll be doing my level best to slow it down to an acceptable crawl. I’m thinking that margaritas supplied by Gary, our cabin neighbor who we met on last year’s trip to the lake, will help considerably.

Well, there’s still a lot to do, including some of the reviews you’re going to be reading below, so before you start reading I’ve got to get writing, or you’ll have nothing to read and I’ll still be writing while you’re trying to read what’s not written. Man, this is that hot tub time machine thing all over again. Spot me five seconds, then go. And see you in a couple of weeks.

Each new triumph that Sheryl Crow has notched in her career has been slightly more unlikely than the last. Not many elementary school music teachers have lucrative jingle singing gigs, and even fewer parlay that success into a back-up vocalist slot with Michael Jackson. Crow’s official 1993 debut album, Tuesday Night Music Club, barely made a dent when it came out, but the following spring saw the impossible rise of “All I Do,” leading to three 1995 Grammys, including the often-fatal New Artist of the Year award.

Crow’s eponymous and self-produced 1996 follow-up was a gritty revelation and proof that she was willing to shed the innocuous Pop veil of her first album to delve into darker, more contentious lyrical territory. And while none of her subsequent six studio albums have come close to registering Tuesday Night’s multi-platinum numbers, Crow has posted more than a few impressive accomplishments, recordings with Sting, Ryan Adams, Kid Rock, Scott Weiland and Mick Jagger, a James Bond theme song, more Grammys, some acting and movie music gigs and surviving breast cancer among them.

For her seventh studio album, 100 Miles from Memphis, Crow takes a page from the Shelby Lynne handbook and returns to her southern Midwest roots for an album full of vintage Soul/Pop sounds. Horns, crystalline back-up singers and slinky rhythms dominate 100 Miles, but Crow wisely weaves the Soul thread into her existing and highly successful Roots Rock tapestry.

Without the propulsive backbeat and Soul appointments, “Our Love Is Fading” would be an easy fit in Crow’s previous catalog, as would the Reggae-touched “Eye to Eye” and the Folk/Country bounce of “Long Ride Home.” But Crow digs deeper on 100 Miles, too; this isn’t simply a Sheryl Crow album with a Soul paint job. She writes from an authentic ’60s AM Soul/Pop perspective, particularly on the album’s first single, “Summer Day,” and the joyous “Peaceful Feeling,” which bristle with Stax goodness.

Francis Farewell Starlite might have a higher profile in the Hip Hop community because of his opening slots with Jeezy and Drizzy and his collaboration with Drake on Thank Me Later. In his group configuration as Francis and the Lights, Starlite stands at the crossroads of ’70s R&B, slick ’80s synth Prog and contemporary Indie Pop, as evidenced on a pair of previous EPs but most prominently on the Lights’ debut “full-length,” the eight-song, 27-minute It’ll Be Better.

Starlite definitely delights in couching his songs in a sophisticated production context on It’ll Be Better, but thankfully that sophistication never leaks into excessively swollen bombast. Starlite operates in the appealing vein of Peter Gabriel’s post-Genesis Pop explorations, with a similar sense of subtlety and understatement, particularly on the airy “In a Limousine” and the gently forceful Beat Pop of “Darling, It’s Alright,” featuring Starlite’s pleading vocal.

The ’80s-tinged Dance Pop of “For Days” bobs and weaves and starts and stops with a quiet effervescence that makes Maroon 5 seem overplayed and histrionic by comparison, while “Knees to the Floor” suggests a Gabriel/Michael McDonald collaboration with a slight Gospel Pop undercurrent. “Tap the Phone” offers shades of Randy Newman’s sardonic lyrical and musical perspective and “Get in the Car” will clearly attract any fan of Francis Dunnery’s Folk/Pop excursions from the ’90s.

With all of the innocuous, sugary Pop that currently clogs the airwaves, the tasteful restraint and polished intelligence of Francis and the Lights would certainly make a refreshing style shift.

Jimmy Gnecco has the kind of backstory that would sound fictional if it weren’t completely true. A gold medal-winning gymnast and world champion BMX rider as a New Jersey teenager, he started playing guitar at 15, joined local bands and began developing his distinctive whisper-to-scream falsetto. He eventually co-founded Ours, an unconventional AltRock band that existed in various incarnations before Gnecco took a sabbatical, befriending Jeff Buckley in the process. Buckley’s tragic death in 1997 spurred Gnecco back to performing; he garnered a Warner Brothers contract, reformed Ours and released a trio of well-received albums: 2001’s Distorted Lullabies, 2002’s Precious and 2008’s Rick Rubin-produced Mercy.

With Gnecco’s debut solo album, The Heart, the Ours frontman addresses directly and indirectly some of the tragedy that has marked his life, the most recent being the passing of his mother while he was working on this album. The Heart’s opener, “Rest Your Soul,” is his bittersweet farewell to her, a quietly reflective acoustic hymn that lilts and weeps and soars with the passionate delivery that Buckley made famous on Grace.

Gnecco has endured unfair accusations of cribbing Buckley’s style for years, and The Heart displays Gnecco’s range better than any previous Ours outing, particularly on the Thom Yorke-meets-Nick Drake ache of “Mystery,” the Iggy Pop demo power of “Bring Me Home,” the Bono-tributes-Rufus Wainwright emotion of “Gravity” and the Curtis Mayfield Soul splendor of “These Are My Hands.”

The Heart will likely be held up as partial evidence, but there’s a fair case to be made for parallel development. In fact, Jeff Buckley’s ghost is a palpable presence in Gnecco’s work, but The Heart is guided by more than a single spirit and they all ultimately pass through his unique creative filter.

Big Head Todd & the Monsters roared into the public consciousness with their third album, 1993’s Sister Sweetly, a ferocious Blues/Classic Rock masterstroke and an album that the Denver trio has been trying to live up to for the past 17 years. They might have come as close as they ever have on 2007’s All the Love You Need, an album that the Monsters cleverly marketed by giving away a total of a quarter million copies, a ploy that actually drove up their attendance numbers on their subsequent tour.

The Monsters have returned to the concept of retail with their eighth studio album, Rocksteady, but the sad reality is there’s only about half an album here to sell. The first five tracks follow a similar path, a Caribbean/Soul stew that simmers but rarely boils up into anything substantial. The title track opens the albums and starts promisingly, with Todd Park Mohr’s guitar creating a swirling and inviting atmosphere, but the song quickly shifts gears into a predictable and rather pedestrian rhythm that doesn’t offer much other than a decent solo and a little more variety at song’s end. “Beautiful” is a pleasant enough attempt at R&B, and “After Gold” has a certain quiet charm, but Mohr’s tribute in “Muhammad Ali” is all floating butterfly and little bee sting and “Happiness Is” has the clichéd sound of someone trying to steal Maroon 5’s lunch money.

Rocksteady doesn’t really get started in earnest until “Back to the Garden,” which blends Caribbean/Soul with an almost Native American undercurrent and an infinitely more engaging lyrical perspective (“She can break a sweat jumping on the dance floor/She can sell you world peace at the mall book store”). Mohr’s cover of “Smokestack Lightning” starts off like a period homage but launches into a contemporary reading that swings while retaining the gritty soul of the original and “I Hate It When You’re Gone” and the funky “People Train” seem closer to Rocksteady’s overall intent. The album finishes with a quiet acoustic-shuffle cover of the Stones’ “Beast of Burden” that features an electric solo that Peter Frampton would be proud to claim and “Fake Diamond Kind,” which chugs along on an Indie Blues/Funk groove that would sound pretty good on most Modern Rock playlists.

The first half of Rocksteady might require time to take root in the listener’s ear, but Big Head Todd & the Monsters have invested so much more energy in the second half that it makes the rest seem forgettable by comparison.

Take her singing and songwriting off the table, and Ruth Gerson still has an astonishing résumé. A graduate of and former teacher at Princeton University, she founded the New & Used Songwriters Collective while in New York City and formed San Francisco Vocal Coaching after relocating last year. She also invented The Singingbelt, a biofeedback device that helps singers recognize diaphragmatic breath support.

Now can we talk about her musical accomplishments? Her previous albums have been produced by Don Dixon and John Cale collaborator Lance Doss and her new album, This Can’t Be My Life, will be followed by her next album, Deceived, which is already done and slated for release early next year. Oh, and she’s a producer herself, having helmed an album of songs for comedian Steven Wright, which is awaiting release. And as long as she avoids kryptonite, she’s good to go.

OK, Gerson’s not Superwoman, but she tries pretty hard on This Can’t Be My Life, much of which was written when she was going through the pain and anxiety of a divorce (in fact, the album was actually finished and ready to release in 2007, but she held it back because of the upheaval in her life). Gerson’s epic Piano Pop will certainly draw comparisons to Tori Amos, but, while she is clearly more lyrically and musically direct than Amos and not nearly as ephemeral, there are moments where Gerson drifts into Amos’ dramatic presentation, as on the jazzy murder ballad “Black Water” and the whisper Folk of “Take It Slow.”

Even in her most balladic moments, Gerson maintains a forceful presence. “Does Your Heart Weep” and “Hazel” quiver with the quiet intensity that Chrissie Hynde brings to her lower key material. On “Fresh Air,” Gerson swaggers with the melancholy power of Paula Cole, while the title track shows her fortitude in the face of her impending split (“I want you to be happy/But not with me”) and “Bulletproof” soars like a soulful Sheryl Crow Pop hymn.

While there might not be a great deal of dynamic range on the largely mid-tempo This Can’t Be My Life, it clearly evokes Gerson’s emotional state at the time it was written and recorded. Greil Marcus has already raved about Gerson’s next album, so TCBML will have to tide us over until her masterpiece comes along.

It’s now been four years since Hello Love, the last Be Good Tanyas album, and during the trio’s subsequent hiatus, Samantha Parton has kept her herself musically occupied, producing Jan Bell & the Cheap Dates’ Songs for Love Drunk Sinners, while Trish Klein has put out three albums with Po’ Girl, her side project with Alison Russell, equaling the Tanyas’ output to date.

Frazey Ford took some time out for motherhood and reflection and brings some of that perspective to her debut solo project, Obadiah. Like her work in the Be Good Tanyas, Obadiah is a compelling and lovely combination of quirk and classicism. Shaped by Ford’s gritty and quivering warble, an odd blend of Samantha Crain, Ani Di Franco (in her less militant moments), Dolly Parton (in her less overly emotive moments) and Victoria Williams’ lower register, Obadiah sports a musical groove that suggests masters like Neil Young (“Lost Together,” “Lay Down with You”), Van Morrison (“If You Gonna Go,” “Firecracker”), Al Green (“I Like You Better”) and Emmylou Harris (“Hey Little Mama”).

Obadiah exhibits Ford’s passion for traditional Folk and Bluegrass filtered through a contemporary sensibility. But Ford is not interested in merely retracing steps she’s already taken with the Tanyas and expands her sonic palette accordingly, folding Blues, Gospel and Soul into her solo mix. As a result, her unique magic is conjuring the spirits of musical giants while retaining her own identity throughout Obadiah, which slowly reveals itself to be a contender for one of the year’s best and most unexpected albums.



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