When veteran Cincinnati musician Zach Mechlem launched his latest project, Mack West, a few years ago, he didn’t just form a new band — he created a new genre. Calling the band’s sound “AltWestern” to describe the dusty, often cinematic quality of its modern American Roots music, Mack West released its self-titled debut two years ago to much acclaim and, given the evocative, visceral nature of the songs, attention from the world of music licensing. Tracks from the album were used on various promo spots and TV shows, including History Channel’s American Pickers.
Going into recording the follow-up, Mechlem and original members Will Campbell (bass) and Greg Slone (drums) bolstered their membership, adding guitarist (and album co-producer) Steve Wethington on guitar and violinist Annette Christianson. While the mood and spirit of the debut is still intact on the resulting album, The Goodnight Trail, Mack West’s sophomore effort doesn’t exactly expand on the trademark elements
Loudon Wainwright III could very easily have slid into the where-are-they-now realm of celebrity obscurity if he had allowed himself to be swallowed up by the one-hit wonderment of “Dead Skunk” in 1972. Although most people at the time only knew him for that ubiquitous single, Wainwright was confident that he had plenty of other weapons in his songwriting arsenal and set about to define the 40-year Folk/Pop career that has brought him certain measures of acclaim, wealth and notoriety as a songwriter, performer, actor and dysfunctional family man, each role woven inextricably into the fabric of the others (remember when he was Captain Spalding, the singing surgeon on M*A*S*H?). Clearly, the two paths that have intersected most often in Wainwright’s life are music and family; his itinerant singer/songwriter’s existence has been both a positive and a negative in his numerous attempts at familial stability and his parents, wives and children have been an endless source of grist for his songwriting mill.
Chief among Wainwright’s influences has been his often larger-than-life father, whose death at 63 left a gaping hole in his 17-year-old son’s life and psyche. A great deal of Wainwright’s unresolved love and anger issues concerning his father have been worked out in his songs over the past few decades, but his latest uniformly excellent album finds him looking back at his long timeline after reaching the milestone birthday of 65, a momentous and bittersweet benchmark that inspired the album’s title; Older Than My Old Man Now.
Like much of his recent work, Wainwright explores the familiar subjects of family, aging, death and lust on Old Man, which he does with typical candor, humor and reflection. Wainwright opens with the jazzy “The Here & the Now,” an annotated but honest account of his 65 years (“I took a wife, we had some kids/I screwed that up and went on the skids”), a history that he continues tracing on the contemplative and mournful “In C.” In the eloquent spoken word intro to the title track, Wainwright calls his father his “principal ghost” and then launches into a Delta-flavored vamp that addresses the psychic conundrum of having more calendars under his belt than his dad (“Sixty four is awful old, you know what can happen next/Hey, I’m older than my old man ever was, and I’m trying to keep it in context”).
Wainwright’s broad range is best typified by the ridiculously funny “I Remember Sex,” a parlor piano duet with Barry Humphries’ female alter ego Dame Edna Everidge, and the sublimely heartbreaking realizations of “The Days That We Die,” where Wainwright expounds, in prose and rhyme, on the reality of getting closer to life’s finish line without having fully reconciled with his children for his real and imagined sins. Listening to Wainwright and son Rufus trade soul-searching verses about life and change and forgiveness will bring a tear to the most cynical eye.
Over the course of the past few albums, Wainwright has honed his songwriting style to a fine point and narrowed his focus to very personal issues which he has translated into impossibly universal songs. Older Than My Old Man Now finds him in peak form in that regard, and reinforces the idea that he’s probably got plenty more to say on every subject as his finite journey heads inexorably toward the infinite horizon.
I don’t think I’ve ever written anything about Jake Speed without mentioning Woody Guthrie. Call me lazy, but the political Folk pioneer is such an obvious influence on Speed’s songs and lyrics it almost seems dishonest not to mention it.
While listening to World Come Clean, Jake Speed and the Freddies’ brand new release, I never thought of Woody once.
On the album, Speed and his band still work within a traditional Americana format, but the songs are a bit more expansive and the claustrophobia of Folk clichés is alleviated by the more dynamic songwriting and performances. The album’s songs are far less predictable than ones from previous Speed releases, showing the maturity of Speed as a songwriter, refreshingly not purely working within the idioms of Folk music. There are shades of Rock, Blues, Country and Gypsy Jazz (and, yes, still lots of Folk) in the mix and The Freddies’ turn in typically perfect performances, showing they may just be the best Roots band in the city.
Thankfully, Speed’s lyrical approach remains socially/politically aware, with jabs at the U.S.’s current sad state. Most of the songs began as “Songatorials,” from Speed’s weekly song offerings for CityBeat throughout 2007, “Speedy Delivery,” based on current events. While these issues have often been diluted with a tinge of sharp humor on previous Speed recordings, here, Speed plays it more straight. In fact, there’s a sense of urgency and even a little anger in the feel of many of these tracks, something largely absent from Speed’s discography so far.
The fiery nature of the lyrics is translated wonderfully by the musicians (Freddies Justin Todhunter, Kentucky Graham, Chris Werner, and assorted "guest Freddies"), who perform most of the songs with the energy of a Punk Rock band. The album shifts gears halfway through with gentler songs that turn the anger and despair into hopefulness about the world and the future. Giving the album this kind of duality (and breaking it up so exactly) creates an enjoyable and interesting listening experience.
Some see Speed as a bit of a novelty act, his aw-shucks shtick and throwback duds making him seem like a costumed strolling troubadour at some Renaissance Fair-like Pioneer Days festival. But those people aren’t listening or paying close enough attention. World Come Clean should go a long way in dispelling such surface observations.
Jake Speed and the Freddies will celebrate the release of World Come Clean this Saturday with a free show at Northside Tavern. The Queen City Zapatistas open. Go to Jake Speed and the Freddies official site for more info.— Mike Breen
When Joan Osborne vaulted into the public consciousness with Relish, her 1995 major label debut, she had already established a loyal fan base that was well aware of her estimable Jazz and Soul skills. With Soul Show in 1991 and the Blue Million Miles EP in 1993, Osborne displayed her smoldering vocal chops and her unerring ability to write to her own strengths as well as inhabit another writer’s song (her take on Captain Beefheart’s “Her Eyes Are a Blue Million Miles” was a marvel). Largely a collaboration with producer Rick Chertoff, Hooters frontmen Eric Bazilian and Rob Hyman and Beefheart guitarist Gary Lucas, Relish rightly pushed Osborne into Rock/Pop territory and the well-deserved spotlight, but it was only marginally indicative of her loves and influences.
For the past decade and a half, Osborne has made no secret of her musical passions as she’s fleshed out her catalog with a string of soulful original albums, covers albums (2002’s How Sweet It Is) and blends of the two (2007’s excellent Breakfast in Bed).
With her latest, Bring It On Home, Osborne heads directly into the Blues/R&B camp with predictably great results, from the opening swing of Ray Charles’ version of “I Don’t Need No Doctor” and a blistering spin through “Roll Like a Big Wheel” from obscure Blues shaker Olive Brown to a down and dirty take on James Moore’s iconic “Shake Your Hips” (nailed by the Stones on Exile on Main Street) and a shivering R&B tailfeather shake of Clarence Carter’s “I’m Qualified.”
As usual, Osborne’s gift in covering other songwriters’ works lies in her innate talent in melding the spirit and intent of the original song with her own singular approach to come up with a version that is both tribute and appropriate reinvention, and Bring It On Home finds Osborne at the peak of her abilities.
In the late ’70s, Punk Rock and New Wave were blossoming in New York City. But those genre tags were just a convenient labeling device, a catch-all that didn’t take into consideration all of the varied influences artists were bringing with them under that umbrella of Punk or New Wave. Bands would drag things like Rockabilly or Disco into their audio realm and craft their own new sound out of it, with barely any fans blinking an eye, let alone screaming, “That’s not Punk!”
Cincinnati trio Animal Circles bring that sort of kitchen-sink approach into their compositions, craftily blending together Surf Rock, Punk, Roots/Folk/Country sounds, Rockabilly and other styles into their own distinctive sonic smoothie. With the access people have to every type of music these days, it’s a wonder why every band doesn’t have Animal Circles’ sense of eclectic wonderment.
The band celebrates the release of its debut album, Eva Lee, Saturday at Northside Tavern. The free show also features Bloomington, Ind., rockers Thee Open Sex and local Black Sabbath tribute, Druid Piss.
Animal Circles’ variety and sense of dynamics make Eva Lee a thoroughly entertaining from start to finish. From the full-throttle burner “Brooks and Then Done,” with its speeding-out-of-control-train shuffle and rumbling Surf guitar licks (a consistent on the record) to the anxious, Jack-White-goes-to-the-beach vibe of “Squid Attack” to the vintage Country-flavored rocker “Southern Bell,” the band keeps your interest, not just with its unique ingredients, but also its strong sense of songwriting and melody.
The “Surfin’ Space Cowboy” approach has the potential to get old fast, so it’s to AC’s great credit that Eva Lee is such a consistently compelling listen. This is no novelty act.
Here is the Eva Lee track "Life on the Bonzai Pipeline."
Saturday at the Southgate House’s Parlour, area Indie band Fake Hands celebrates the release of its first studio project, the EP Here We Are After Dark, which follows a pair of self-recorded and -released efforts.
The five-track release is an excellent introductory calling card for the relatively new band, which features four core members and a handful of others who add horns and other ornamentation to the band’s clever spin on Indie Rock.
Started the night off with a bang, bang — Jagjaguwar Records’ Okkervil River at Grammer’s. The tent was packed — so packed that it was hard to weave to the front — but I was sneaky. From Austin, Texas, and labeled Folk Pop, Okkervil didn’t disappoint. Will Sheff, frontman with a beard and black-rimmed glasses, busted out a clear, deep, penetrating voice. Between the strings, bass, guitar, tambourine, keys and more, this band built a series of startling crescendos, while still allowing for some playful guitar solos. The music would surge to rise, then dive, pulling off a true independent spirit that was uplifting, but mixed with the bass vocals, there was yet another layer of complexity that made it artistic and multifaceted. This band has truly grown and tightened over time, becoming mature, and they’ve carefully molded the tunes into a creative shape, while maintaining a structure worth following.