CD reviews: New tunes from independent voices
July 2, 2009
Recent CDs by independent-minded Americans, Canadians and Brits:
Steve Earle didn’t merely proclaim that the late Texan Townes Van Zandt was America’s best songwriter. He said he would stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in his boots and offer up that opinion.Strong stuff, and Earle, the epitome of the renegade alt-country singer, stands behind that with an album of Van Zandt songs. Sorry, Steve, but Van Zandt doesn’t match or exceed Dylan – I’ll burn those words with a blow-torch into your favorite guitar – but he is way the hell up there with the country’s finest. Earle picks some of the great ones, and brings Van Zandt’s words – of outlaws, of juggling hope and despair – lovingly to life. The album opens with “Pancho and Lefty,” the tale of glorious desperadoes on the run that Willie Nelson made a hit, and closes with the sublimely tender “To Live Is to Fly.” One question: Where is “Waiting Around to Die,” Van Zandt’s ultimate statement of his tortured existence?Earle keeps it fairly simple in sound most of the time, letting Townes’ essence come through. Which raises the issue: If Van Zandt was so damn good, why listen to this rather than the genuine article? It may be that Earle – whose musician son is named Justin Townes Earle – is just trying to shed some light on an overlooked genius. Which would be a fine explanation for me. So yes, listen to “Townes.” But don’t forget to listen to Townes himself
On “Just Singing a Song,” from “Fork in the Road,” Neil Young says, “Just singing a song won’t change the world.” Funny, since Old Neil has always acted as if it that were possible. In 1970, Young rushed his “Ohio,” a rebuke of the 1970 Kent State killings, to radio as a single, to maximize its impact.In his 60s, Young is still taking big issues head-on, and he doesn’t sound as if he really believes it’s a futile effort. A few years ago, he did another rush job, creating the messy but potent “Living With War,” a full-album critique of the bellicose George W. Bush administration. Here, using the American car as a continuous reference point, Young, in glorious garage-rock mode, tackles the greed that has landed us in this economic what-have-you (“Cough Up the Bucks”), the oil companies, and the forces that have prevented the arrival of the electric automobile (“Fuel Line”). He doesn’t just mope; he speaks of the power and potential of the car in the driving “Johnny Magic,” and the romance of the machine in “Get Behind the Wheel.”
Since giving up punkish rock, for the most part, over a decade ago, Elvis Costello has done about the most punk thing imaginable. For 10 years, Costello has said screw you to any manager, record company exec, critic or fan who dares to think musicians should stay in or even near their creative box. Costello has made ballet scores and alt-country-rock, string quartets and big-band jazz and New Orleans music, and occasionally returns to his brand of punk-pop. All of it has been interesting; almost all of it has been very good; some of it, like the blistering 2006 jazz work “My Flame Burns Blue,” is outstanding.Costello takes another sharp turn with “Secret, Profane & Sugarcane.” With producer T Bone Burnett, Costello digs deep into the American South, rounding up Nashville’s finest (fiddler Stuart Duncan, dobroist Jerry Douglas) to make an acoustic string album. The lyrics explore the iconic South – riverboats, plantations, fiddles – but with Costello putting his own stamp on it. His words are dense, ambitious and evocative; it’s as if he wants to add his own name to those of William Faulkner and Harper Lee. As always, Costello keeps his singing voice his own, crooning but never drawling. Place this up there with his finest latter-day accomplishments. And it’s anybody’s guess where he goes now.
Naming an album after yourself? That’s standard. Calling it “Wilco (the album)?” Funny. Opening the album with “Wilco (the song)?” Ballsy. Making it a great song, and a great album? That’s Wilco. With their seventh album – each one essential – Jeff Tweedy’s group continues to make rock ‘n’ roll relevant. Just about gone is the country-rock of the early albums; in its place has come a sound more original and vital. On “Wilco (the album),” Wilco (the band) creates a broad, beautiful and atmospheric sound that fully believes in the power of rock. “Are times getting tough?” Tweedy asks on “Wilco (the song).” “Have you had enough of the old?” His advice: “Put on your headphones before you explode.” And then, slyly but with confidence: “Wilco will love you baby.”And they do. As they always have.
The upstate New York band the Felice Brothers sound as tough as razor wire and as American as rust on a 1952 Chevy on “Yonder Is the Clock.” The band – built around three actual brothers, and a guy with the magnificent name of Christmas Clapton – doesn’t go for pretty, but a gritty, honest sound that puts you in mind of long-distance trains, baseball before it got turned into America’s Passed-Time, and another quintet that got its start in upstate New York, The Band.firstname.lastname@example.org