Neko Case: Middle Cyclone (Anti-)
Perhaps in 30 years we'll look back at Neko Case with the same reverence that we do now with, say, Joni Mitchell -- as a true original. Will Case ever carry the same legendary stature? Hard to say, but it seems to me that legends are not as easily made these days.
That's OK. We have Case right now, 38 years old and at the peak of her powers. Middle Cyclone is a more than worthy follow-up to 2006's brilliant Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. The new one builds on Case's heady blend of country noir and airy folk-pop, with oblique song structures stitching together melodies that at first sound a bit unlikely, but quickly ingrain themselves. This is boldly inventive, new-sounding stuff that somehow evokes an antique feeling. Postmodern roots music, a contradiction in terms. All of which equates to something like wisdom.
Case is among the few artists in contemporary pop who is a legitimate poet. Her lyrics are like funhouse riddles left wide open to listener interpretation, yet not so obtuse as to be precious.
If there's a prevailing theme that courses through Middle Cyclone, it's the vagaries and dark alleys of love. In many cases, love is war -- or at least a heated competition ("If you're not by now dead and buried/ You're most certifiably married"). By and large, Case's narrator comes off as one hard chick -- but not without her vulnerable side, as she reluctantly reveals on the title song: "Can't give up actin' tough/ It's all that I'm made of/ Can't scrape together quite enough/ To ride the bus to the outskirts/ Of the fact that I need love."
Case -- who wrote or co-wrote 12 of the 14 tunes and produced the disc with the help of her core musicians -- concocted gauzy arrangements that use acoustic guitars as the bedrock, but also sprinkle in sweeps of cello and violin, an array of organic keyboards, chiming electric guitars and occasional horns. It all provides an apt backdrop for her clarion vocals, exquisitely calibrated, ranging from a sexy sigh to a pitch-perfect near-bellow.
Various Artists: Covered, A Revolution in Sound: Warner Bros. Records
To commemorate its golden anniversary, Warner Bros. Records commissioned a dozen artists on its current roster to each perform a favorite tune from the label's first 50 years. The results, not surprisingly, range from insipid to almost brilliant. We'll start with the clunkers: Adam Sandler doing a rote, irony-free version of Neil Young's "Like a Hurricane" whiny vocals and all. WTF? Taking Back Sunday's "You Wreck Me," another blatant copy that begs the question: Why would anyone ever listen to this version when you can cue up the Tom Petty original? On paper, Avenged Sevenfold's covering Sabbath's "Paranoid" would seem to have potential -- but the original, while thinner sounding, is so much heavier and more menacing than this stiff, ProTooled remake.
James Otto's "Into the Mystic," while pretty faithful to Van Morrison's, succeeds because of the sheer commitment in Otto's blue-eye-soul vocal. Michelle Branch doing Joni Mitchell's "A Case of You?" A recipe for disaster? Nope. Branch proves herself a much more formidable singer than I ever gave her credit for.
Ultimately, the artists faring best are the ones that put their own stamp on a song. Missy Higgins turns Roxy Music's "More Than This" into a loping, country-folk tune. The Used approaches Talking Heads' "Burning Down the House" with a combination of heavy dance-rock (with computer-doctored vocals) and metal guitar chords.
The hands-down winner here comes as no surprise: The Flaming Lips with Stardeath and White Dwarfs start Madonna's "Borderline" with a spare drum machine and keyboard, over which Wayne Coyne ladles a soft falsetto. The tune simmers awhile before hitting blastoff with a barrage of grandiose synthesizer chords and warped vocals, then builds and builds into an absurd, glorious cacophony.
Raul Malo: Lucky One (Fantasy)
He's one of the most gifted contemporary singers in any genre, and although he occasionally goes a little Andrea Bocelli on us, Raul Malo can really bring the swoon with his clear, heart-on-sleeve tenor. The ex-Mavericks frontman, solo since 2001, calls to mind his former band on Lucky One, although it's less categorically country. He brings tinges of high-lonesome Western, Spanish, swing and classic pop balladry into play.
Malo, who has done a couple of cover records, co-wrote each of the 12 tracks on Lucky One, beginning with the title track, a jaunty charmer with a south-of-the-border air. He breaks out his inner Roy Orbison -- not too much of a stretch, seeing as it's right near the surface -- on a few tunes, most notably "Something Tells Me." He drops a little uptown blues on "Ready For My Lovin'," finds just the right swagger on the breezily swinging "You Always Win" and hits the Tex-Mex with "Lonely Hearts."
Malo is most apt to go over the top on ballads, none more so than "Rosalie," which is bloated on passion and pain. Yeah, Malo's a country singer, but he's also Latino -- so we'll give him a pass on that one miscue. 1/2
Lucky Thompson: New York City, 1964-65 (Uptown)
Although his nickname was Lucky, saxophonist Eli Thompson seemed to have little of it during a fitful career that effectively ended in 1974 (he died in 2005 at 82, having been homeless and suffering from dementia.) Thompson was a music biz outcast, bitter and difficult, but an accomplished, original player. This two-CD set of unearthed live club dates finds him performing his own compositions in an octet format ('64), creamy arrangements giving way to spirited blowing, a mix of hard-swinging post-bop and ballads. The second disc ('65) features the saxophonist in a looser quartet format, stretching out and plumbing his considerable technique and imagination. Thompson splits time between tenor and soprano, the latter an instrument popularized by John Coltrane. But Thompson, three years Trane's senior, did not drink the Kool-Aid and followed his own, more lyrical, bird-toned course.
Tyler- I can't believe how talented of a writer you are. This article was beautifully…
Great interview! Give the interviewer a full time job! He's great!
The DJ was actually The Castle's very own DJ Tom Gold :)
Fabulous review Gabe! Too bad I missed it.