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Lucinda Williams, The Majestic Silver Strings, Dropkick Murphys, Big Head Blues Club and Rival Schools

By Brian Baker · May 5th, 2011 · I Shall Be Released

Lucinda Williams has traveled an eclectic path since her debut in the late ’70s, coming to prominence as the singer/songwriter who provided Mary Chapin Carpenter with one of her most recognized hits, “Passionate Kisses,” and ending up a bona fide Americana icon nearly a quarter century later. Along the way, Williams has racked up a few Grammy nods and a handful of wins, amassed a press kit with an almost embarrassing array of accolades and made fans out of some of the biggest names in music, including Carpenter, Emmylou Harris and Tom Petty.

Even though her work over the past 13 years, beginning with the anointed divinity of Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, has been almost universally praised, critics have chipped away at Williams’ recent output even as they acknowledge her past triumphs.

Williams has christened her tenth album Blessed, which she may well feel, given her newlywed status and a relative calm in her personal and professional life, but she’s definitely kicking at the stall door with the dozen songs that make up her new album.

Blessed opens with the Stonesy Country swagger of “Buttercup,” a piss-off to a needy boyfriend where Williams wraps her drawl around the lyrics like a skanky stripper works a bar pole while the band fills the space with roadhouse riffs and rumbling rhythms. Conversely, she works the same basic methodology on the gently sentimental “I Don’t Know How You’re Livin’,” a lament for, rather than a rant against, a long-gone lover.

Williams works both extremes to great effect on Blessed, from the hushed atmospherics of “Copenhagen,” the Folk whisper of the title track and the Country Blues shimmer of “Born to Be Loved,” to the Steve Earle-fronts-Crazy Horse nutkick of “Seeing Black” and the quiet chaos of “Convince Me.” Williams finishes Blessed with two of her best numbers, the Tom Waits/Marc Ribot-inflected Blues hymn “Awakening” and ““Kiss Like Your Kiss,” a heartbreaking ode to lost love with a Daniel Lanois-like Americana ambience.

If you want to hear just how great these songs really are, get the deluxe edition of Blessed, with its extra Kitchen Tapes disc featuring Williams’ home demos before producer Don Was infused them with his sonic mojo.

Blessed is the purest evidence yet that Lucinda Williams still has plenty grist for her songwriting mill and no amount of happiness is going to make her lose the edge that she’s earned and honed over the past three decades.

Buddy Miller has had more than his share of cool gigs over the course of his varied career, from providing guitar accompaniment to everyone from Emmylou Harris to Robert Plant, to navigating an exquisite Americana solo career (with occasional help from his wife, the equally talented Julie Miller), all of which combined to earn the singer/songwriter the title of “Artist of the Decade” by No Depression.

So what’s a highly lauded roots artist to do after he’s done damn near everything? Miller’s answer was to assemble an unlikely Americana guitar band, look back on some of Country’s greatest compositions, throw in some anachronistic new ones, invite a batch of stunning vocalists to join the party and call the whole shooting match The Majestic Silver Strings. You’d also have to call it Buddy Miller’s next great triumph.

For starters, there’s the astonishing band. Greg Leisz on pedal steel is nearly a given for any top notch Americana collection, but including atmospheric stylists Bill Frisell and Marc Ribot is sheer genius. With bassist Dennis Crouch and drummer Jay Bellerose offering a delicately sturdy pulse, the group revisits some of Country’s most enduring (and unfairly neglected) songs, staying true to their spirits while reinventing them with rootsy ambience, from the prairie space swing of Tex Owen’s “Cattle Call” and the textural take on Lefty Frizzell’s sweetly sentimental ode, “I Want to Be With You Always,” to the swaggering spin on George Jones’ infectious “Why Baby Why” and the ominous Twin Peaks versions of Roger Miller’s “Dang Me” and the Ribot-arranged classic “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie.”

The new songs on the Strings’ self-titled album shimmer like titanium in a sepia photograph. Frisell’s “God’s Wing’ed Horse” is a gorgeous hymn for the new millennium with appropriately beautiful lyrics provided by Julie Miller, who duets with her husband on the exquisite track, while Lee Ann Womack delivers a wonderfully vulnerable reading of Ribot’s creaky mental health ballad “Meds.”

Miller’s secret weapons on The Majestic Silver Strings are the amazing vocalists that inhabit these songs with the stellar band: Shawn Colvin, Ann McCrary, Patty Griffin, Marc Anthony Thompson, Julie Miller and the incomparable Emmylou Harris.

If there’s any justice in the world, Buddy Miller’s Majestic Silver Strings will have a much longer life than this one magnificent album.

Reviewing a new Dropkick Murphys album is like critiquing a Babe Ruth homerun. It might not always exhibit the most gorgeous technical form, but they’re always over the fence and the runs always count.

If the Celtic Punk boys from Boston ever chance across this review, they’ll shudder at the Ruth reference — the band bleeds Boston red and Irish green with every gig played, song written and fist pumped.

The Murphys’ latest album, Going Out in Style, is unique for the band in a couple of ways. The four years since 2007’s The Meanest of Times represents the longest studio break they’ve ever taken. Also, the release is the band’s first concept album. Going Out in Style tells the life story of a character named Cornelius Larkin, who has died and gone to his heavenly reward, where he reviews the events of his life on the big plasma screen in the sky.

The album kicks to life with the drum-and-pipes-and-Clash anthemics of “Hang ’Em High,” the perfect lead-in for the title track, a soundtrack to an Irish wake that features gang vocals (by guests Fat Mike, The Living End’s Chris Cheney and comedian Lenny Clarke) that howl like a Celtic version of the Beastie Boys and is likely to wind up being cranked at many Irish funerals from this day forward.

After that reeling launch, the Murphys barely take a breath for the rest of the album; even when they slow things down, as on “Cruel” and “Broken Hymns.” The Murphys play and sing with a barely restrained fury, as though they’re merely marking time until they can explode with traditional pride, Punk energy and ear-splitting abandon.

On “Deeds Not Words” and the frenetic “Sunday Hardcore Matinee.” Style’s quasi-narrative theme also allows the Murphys to crank out a couple of hoary old traditional Irish tunes to close out the album — the venerable “Peg O’ My Heart” and the oft-revisited “The Irish Rover.” Not surprisingly, in the Murphys’ capable hands, the tunes are full tilt, needle-in-the-red affairs, the former featuring a visceral vocal appearance by Bruce Springsteen and the latter offering up a similar cameo from Pat Lynch, guitarist James Lynch’s father.

It’s a fitting end for Going Out in Style, one of the most engaging and adrenalized albums in the Dropkick Murphys’ shit-kicking catalog. And that, my friends, is saying something.

Guitarist/vocalist Todd Park Mohr decided he wanted to do something to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Robert Johnson, unquestionably the most influential and evocative Blues artist in history. Without exposure to Johnson’s slim but essential catalog, modern Rock music would be a very different animal. Just think about the impact Johnson had on The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, John Mayall, Jimmy Page and dozens of other British acolytes in the early ’60s, a mere two decades and change after Johnson died from taking a swig from a bottle of poisoned whiskey spiked by a jealous husband.

There is an equally potent argument to be made that Johnson might never have been more than a footnote in music history — he only recorded a total of 29 songs in two years — without the potent translational skills of the very artists that he influenced.

In Mohr’s case, the influence may not seem quite so overt. With Big Head Todd and the Monsters, Mohr has created a catalog that is less traditional Blues and more contemporary Rock. The debt he feels to Johnson (Mohr credits Johnson’s brutally honest lyrics as his greatest inspiration) is evident on 100 Years of Robert Johnson, the collaborative effort Mohr assembled and christened Big Head Blues Club. Still, BHBC is clearly more rooted in modernity than in antiquity, with these versions bearing as much influence from the Jam community as from Johnson himself (“Come On In My Kitchen,” “Last Fair Deal Gone Down”), although Mohr adjusts his vocal style to be more in keeping with Johnson’s hellhounded delivery.

Mohr definitely channels Johnson more directly with his solo acoustic take on “All My Love’s in Vain” and the guitar duet with Lightnin’ Malcolm, “Preachin’ Blues.” Guests like B.B. King (“Crossroad Blues”), Hubert Sumlin (“When You Gotta Good Friend”) and David “Honeyboy” Edwards (the latter, at 96, one of Johnson’s last living peer) certainly lend authenticity to the project, particularly Edwards’ shambling “Sweet Home Chicago.”

Though 100 Years of Robert Johnson is hardly essential for fans of the legendary bluesman’s canon, Mohr and the luminaries invited to the party still manage to make it a fun ride through some of the most well-explored musical territory in Rock history.

In the mid-’90s, Quicksand was one of the most successful Hardcore bands to blend the genre’s brutal attack with a bittersweet Pop melodicism without compromising either direction. When Quicksand dissolved, frontman Walter Schreifels took up a similar banner with his next outfit, Rival Schools, made up of fellow refugees from ’80s and ’90s Hardcore bands like Gorilla Bisuits, CIV, Youth of Today and Iceburn. The band espoused a lot of the same sonic benchmarks that Quicksand had established but lasted only one album and three years before falling to the same fate. Schreifels pursued a succession of short-lived projects, including the promising Walking Concert and its lone album, 2004’s well-received Run to Be Born. In 2008, Rival Schools reunited and began to make occasional live appearances. Last year, Schreifels finally released his first solo album, An Open Letter to the Scene, an acoustic yet bracing cross-pollination of Punk and Folk/Pop.

The big news this year is the release of Rival Schools’ official sophomore album, Pedals, a collection of B-sides and unreleased tracks that has been available online for years and bristles with the kind of Post-Hardcore anthemics Schreifels has been perfecting for nearly two decades.

Pedals hits the launch button with “Wring It Out,” an irresistible Punk/Pop fist-pumper that would have made bigger stars of Jane’s Addiction in the late ’80s, and follows it with “69 Guns” and “Eyes Wide Open,” the former a spiky Math Punk Pop gem and the latter a Paul Westerberg-fronts-Foo Fighters Indie Rock grinder.

Given the brevity of his involvement with any one project, it might seem that Walter Schreifels suffers from some kind of musical ADD. But his work on all of them is consistently excellent and Pedals is no exception. Schreifels might not stick with Rival Schools for much longer, but his name is like the Good Housekeeping Punk Rock Seal of Approval — wherever he lands, whatever he does, it’s almost guaranteed to be a quality slam dunk.

In theory, John J. McCauley III, Taylor Goldsmith and Matt Vasquez are connected by little more than the fact that they all play guitar in bands. McCauley channels Neil Young as the creative power source in Deer Tick, Goldsmith looks to Ray Davies for inspiration in the rollicking and raucous Dawes and Vasquez lays down a Northern Soul vibe with Delta Spirit. Somehow over the past few years, the three have found themselves in each other’s company on various stages and have discovered an amazing commonality, leading them to write and rehearse songs apart from their usual band schedules.

Last March, the trio played an unannounced set at SXSW as MG&V and, having never played their songs to anyone but each other, left a room full of dropped jaws and heightened expectations in their wake. When they took the extra step and took the songs into the studio, they decided to adopt the title of one of the tunes for their new name. Middle Brother was born.

The trio’s eponymous debut is an effective melding of talents and stylistic leanings, with each of the members’ creative identities bubbling to the surface. At the same time, Middle Brother is the sum of its parts, shooting off sparks with an intensity and verve that nods in the direction of Crazy Horse (“Blue Eyes”), Steve Earle (“Wilderness,” “Daydreaming”), The Beatles (“Me, Me, Me,” “Someday”) and Bob Dylan (“Blood and Guts”).

Even as Middle Brother serves as a reflection of their influences, the trio pulls off the rather amazing feat of retaining their individual sonic personalities while finding a completely new one at the crossroads of the collaboration. McCauley, Goldsmith and Vasquez are clearly three very busy guys — here’s hoping that they can juggle their Palm Pilots adeptly enough to make a lot more room for Middle Brother.

Since his almost perfect 1995 self-titled sophomore album, Ron Sexsmith has become the songwriter’s songwriter; not many contemporary troubadours have Elvis Costello and John Hiatt singing their praises so loudly they seem like freelance publicists. On his subsequent releases, Sexsmith has gone from strength to strength, adapting his Neo Folk foundation to a variety of genre possibilities, rarely staying in one musical place for too long and racking up a drawerful of critical acclaim in the process.

On his eleventh studio album, Long Player, Late Bloomer, Sexsmith embraces his Pop persona with an even greater fervor than he did on 2005’s Retriever, blending the wry perspective of Harry Nilsson (“Get in Line”) and Elvis Costello (“Everytime I Follow”), the expansive intimacy of Jimmy Webb (“Miracles”) and Burt Bacharach (“No Help At All”) and the balladeering power of Badfinger under Paul McCartney’s tutelage (“Believe It When I See It”).

On album’s past, Sexsmith has mined his personal emotional troughs for some potent lyrical insights, but his current relative contentment allows for less of his incisive wordplay on Late Bloomer. In it’s place, Sexsmith fills his set list with a healthy dose of melancholy-tinted, sunshiny Pop, burnished to an amber glow by super producer Bob Rock and layered throughout with Sexsmith’s soulfully rich vocals and honeydripping melodies. A gorgeous example is the lilting yet undeniably powerful “Michael and His Dad,” a song about the struggles of a widower and his young son set to Sexsmith’s brilliantly simple piano Pop and emboldened with a swooping bass line, delicate guitar scrollwork and infectious Beach Boys harmonies. And while the message might be slightly maudlin and perfectly obvious, Sexsmith invests the song with a muted passion and an engagingly heartbreaking melody that conveys its emotional intent almost better than its lyrical content. The hardest of hearts should crack just a little.

Some may argue that Long Player, Late Bloomer’s reduced lyrical intensity distances the album from Sexsmith’s best work, but it’s clear that he has notched up his musical game and that’s more than enough to win the day.

Jenn Wassner and Andy Stack have jammed a whole lot of experience into their last five years as Wye Oak. The pair was in a high school outfit and stayed together when the band broke up. Stack got proficient at doubling on drums and keyboards, so they stopped looking for a bass player and remained a duo. Their indie debut, 2007’s If Children, generated a lot of buzz and landed them a contract with Merge. The twosome’s debut for the label, 2009’s The Knot, was a marvel of Americana/Folk quaintness with bursts of Shoegazing, wall-of-noise frenzy, while last year’s five-song My Neighbor/My Creator EP was a more consistently energetic set. Couple this steady release stream with an almost constant road presence and it’s easy to why home is such a foreign concept to the duo.

On their third Wye Oak album, Civilian, Wassner and Stack don’t stray too far from the framework they’ve established on their recorded output to date. The difference here may well be the production assistance of John Congleton, whose boardwork seems to have cleared the way for Wassner and Stack to remove themselves from the technical mindset and concentrate on creating a more expansive, widescreen set of songs. A case in point is the galloping howl of the title track, a live highlight over the past couple of years; it’s never an easy task to translate a song in the studio that has become a visceral road favorite, but Wassner and Stack have admirably combined studio sophistication with live adrenaline to create a unique yet faithful reading, particularly Wassner’s swirlingly mad Tara-Key-channels-Neil Young guitar solo.

With Civilian, Wye Oak has found the most effective way to combine their somewhat disparate sonic directions into a unified sound that exhibits their gifts like a great recipe rather than individual ingredients. Wassner shifts her guitar from soothing strum to squalling tumult without a hitch (check the quirkily different Game Theory blurt of “Dog Eyes”), while her huskily crooning vocals can offer both the safe harbor of the Innocence Mission’s Karen Peris (“We Were Wealth”) and the fair warning of Laura Viers (“Holy Holy”). Meanwhile, one-man rhythm section Stack maintains a steady foundation while providing appropriately textural keyboards and sinewy loops, completing one of Indie Rock’s most singular symbiotic musical relationships.

If Civilian is a compass point, we should all set our GPS units for the heart of Wye Oak’s sunrise.


BRIAN BAKER can be heard Fridays at 4:30 p.m. on Class X Radio. Tune in on 88.9 FM or at classxradio.com.

 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
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