The Good, the Bad and the Snuggly
The upper valley is going to do a decent impersonation of rocking this summer. Jack Johnson and G. Love. Dirty Dozen Brass Band. Leftover Salmon. Steve Miller Band. Medeski, Martin & Wood. Barbara Cue, featuring an actual member of Widespread Panic for an actual appearance. Free shows on Fanny Hill every time you turn your head.
And then, kaboom! The door slams shut on live music in this so-called nightlife capital. And with the price of gas headed Jah knows where, the road is not exactly going to be the most inviting place.
Best to get on very good terms with your CD collection. Here are a few to add – or not – to the rotation.
Big Head Todd and the Monsters, “Crimes of Passion”
produced by Todd Park Mohr (Big/Sanctuary)
Colorado’s Big Head Todd and the Monsters peaked commercially a decade ago with the hit-filled “Sister Sweetly.” But the gentle downhill ride in popularity hasn’t been accompanied by am artistic decline. BHT&Ms have made consistently smart roots-rock albums.
“Crimes of Passion,” though, may mark a high point. It highlights all sides of the band, now returned to its original trio of singer-guitarist Todd Park Mohr, drummer Brian Nevin and bassist Rob Squires. “Conquistador” sounds like the more experimental side of Los Lobos crossed with John Lee Hooker. “Beauty Queen” and “Angela Dangerlove” are sweet, easy ballads. The opener “Dirty Juice” is updated blues-rock, and dirty enough to live up to its name. And on “Come On,” the band dips its toe into the electronic realm.
It’s not about to catch on like “Sister Sweetly.” But “Crimes of Passion” shows a band that does a lot of things, all of them well.
Eric Clapton, “Me and Mr. Johnson”
produced by Clapton and Simon Climie (Reprise)
I handed Eric Clapton’s new tribute to blues legend Robert Johnson, “Me and Mr. Johnson,” to a friend with a warning about how deathly dull it was. He scoffed: “Hey, I just want to hear Clapton play some songs without any techno-pop crap. If he sings and plays his guitar, I’ll be happy.” A day later he was back at my door, shaking his head and admitting I was right.
If anyone has wasted talent on the scale of this one-time god, I can’t think of it. This time out, Clapton neither reimagines Johnson’s songs nor burns his way through faithful versions, but sleepwalks through it all, taking halfhearted stabs at ideas here and there. In the liner notes, Clapton professes his everlasting appreciation of Johnson, yet he can’t work up the inspiration to truly honor what Johnson has meant to him. Sad.
(Update: My friend revised his opinion, saying on his third listen this somehow sounded much better. But I’m betting it’s just temporary insanity and by the fifth time around he’ll return to his senses.)
Caetano Veloso, “A Foreign Sound”
produced by Veloso and Jaques Morelenbaum (Nonesuch)
On first glance, “A Foreign Sound” is weird for the sake of weirdness. Among the songs are Nirvana’s “Come as You Are,” “Jamaica Farewell,” Dylan’s “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” mid-20th century standards “Cry Me a River” and “Body and Soul,” and that classic of American cheese, “Feelings.”
But maybe the choices are not so strange. Caetano Veloso, a famed, 61-year-old Brazilian pop singer, has long wanted to record an album of songs in English, and it would be natural for him, singing in a foreign tongue, to select the songs most familiar to him. These are them.
Despite the varied arrangements, which span from orchestral to a cappella, Veloso gets a similar result with most of the songs. His high, light voice drifts over gentle Brazilian rhythms and soft sounds, giving “A Foreign Sound” a feel that is part South American, part angelic. Veloso’s oddball phrasings are an acquired taste, for sure. My favorite selection here is “(Nothing But) Flowers,” the humorous song by Veloso’s labelmate David Byrne. (Veloso dedicates “Feelings” to Byrne, who named one of his albums after the song, and who has been heavily influenced by Brazilian sounds.) Also good is the funky take on “It’s Alright, Ma” (from whose lyrics Veloso gets the album title).
Adding to the strangeness are the liner notes, a skewed tribute to American music. And in the booklet of lyrics and credits, the songs are listed out of order.
Popa Chubby, “Peace, Love & Respect”
produced by Chubby (Blind Pig)
A massive, baldheaded, heavily tattooed New Yorker who changed his name from Ted Horowitz to Popa Chubby is bound to have some opinions. Despite the placid title, singer-guitarist Chubby spares no spleen on “Peace, Love & Respect.”
“Un-American Blues,” which opens with a guitar riff on “The Star Spangled Banner,” is a rollicking blues protest against the stripping away of Constitutional rights. In the plaintive “Young Men,” Chubby demands we stop sending people off to die in dubious wars. Chubby also flashes acid humor: “Top Ten Reasons Why I Can’t Sleep at Night” runs through such nightmares as mad cow, street violence and Republicans; “Like the Buddha Do” imagines the Buddha as a bad mother on a motorcycle, even his peace-loving ass pissed off at the shape of the world.
But Chubby isn’t a one-note finger-pointer; he points the way out too. “I’m Not Afraid” takes a psychedelic, defiant stance against all the ills. And when he sings the most punk version of “Keep on the Sunny Side,” it’s not weary irony, but genuine encouragement, paralleling Steve Earle’s earnest take on “What’s So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding?”
Keb’ Mo’: “Keep It Simple”
produced by Keb’ Mo’ (Epic/Okeh)
Admirable truth in advertising here. Singer and stringed instrument player Keb’ Mo’ does go for simplicity, with the songs – almost all co-written by Keb’ and various partners – getting the slightest touches from contributors Robben Ford, Sam Bush, Vince Gill and more.
With simplicity comes mellow. Really mellow. Keb’s voice is consistently low-key, whether he’s paying tribute to B.B. King in “Riley B. King” (with Ford and Robert Cray adding smooth guitar leads), coaxing a lost love (“Walk Back In”), or spreading messages of inspiration (“Let Your Light Shine,” “I’m Amazing”) and satisfaction (“House in California,” “Shave Yo’ Legs”). Virtually every song sounds like the album-ending ballad.
“Keep It Simple” offers further proof that Keb’ is no bluesman. Blues – like bluegrass and r & b – is part of what he puts into the songs here. But with the laid-back vibe and structured compositions, Mr. Mo’ is as much singer-songwriter as bluesman. Plus, no one with such a rosy outlook can rightly call himself a blues artist.
“Keep It Simple” is another fine, very grown-up offering, even if one wishes that Keb’ would let rip just a little bit more.
Widespread Panic with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, “Night of Joy”
produced by Widespread Panic (Sanctuary)
By far, the Widespread Panic CD that gets the most spins in my player is “Another Joyous Occasion,” a live recording with frequent Panic collaborators the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. I always thought it deserved to be a double CD; apparently Widespread had similar thoughts. “Night of Joy” is another live outing – from November 2003 in Myrtle Beach, S.C. – with the Dirty Dozen on board all the way. As always, the Dirty Dozen horns are a splendid complement to Panic’s jams, with a cover of Bill Withers’ “Use Me” and a long version of Panic’s “Rebirtha” particularly tasty.
Toots and the Maytals, “True Love”
The all-star lineup that join reggae singer Toots Hibbert here is eye-popping: Willie Nelson, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Bonnie Raitt, Ben Harper and Trey Anastasio for starters. But as with any CD of this sort, the question is: Does it even add up to the sum of the parts?
Albums like this hardly do much for me. The marketing angle is too transparent. The tone changes from song to song. The actual artist plays a secondary role on his own album.
“True Love” has more good moments than most. Ryan Adams proves himself a multitalented singer doing a duet with Toots on “Time Tough”; Anastasio’s jammy guitar licks fit right in on “Sweet and Dandy.” And Toots, the man whose 1968 hit “Do the Reggay” gave reggae its name, actually sounds inspired by the company.
I can see giving “True Love” a few future spins. Which is more than I can say for Santana’s or Willie Nelson’s recent star-studded albums.
The Flatlanders, “Wheels of Fortune”
produced by Joe Ely (New West)
In 1972, Texas singer-songwriters Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock tossed in their lot together to become the Flatlanders. Their one album was both legendary and ignored, and the three pursued solo careers. Finally in 2002, the three regrouped on “Now Again,” a CD of dusty country-rock that confirmed the trio’s original promise.
Now the Flatlanders are a band. With extensive touring under their belts following “Now Again,” the threesome headed back to the studio and emerged with another gem. Like “Now Again,” “Wheels of Fortune” highlights three different voices, united by their West Texas-ness. Ely is the hardest-rocking, turning Gilmore’s “Midnight Train” into a fierce tale of the big choices we make, punctuated by burning slide guitar. Gilmore’s high twang gives Hancock’s “Wishin’ For You” a hopeful tone above a Tex-Mex beat. Hancock takes the lead on his own “Baby Do You Love Me Still?” which shows his way with a catchy tune and poetic lyrics.
“Wheels of Fortune” is not on par with “Now Again.” But it’s smart, sharp alt-country makes another 30-year wait for the next Flatlanders CD a longshot.
Los Chromasomés, “Twango Bango II”
Los Chromasomés are that wacky, virtuosic duo of string man David Lindley and percussionist Wally Ingram. The two pull out all their instruments here – Lindley’s oud, bouzouki and chumbush, as well as plain old guitar; Ingram’s djembe, cajon and dumbek – to play roots music that is often goofy (“When a Guy Gets Boobs,” “Meatgrinder Blues”) but always intricate. Lindley and Ingram – who are pictured on the back cover as masked Mexican wrestlers El Rayo X and El Rayo Y – speak in many tongues, of course. They sing in Spanish on the border tune “Gabrielle,” give the blues standard “Hesitation Blues” a reggae beat, go Hawaiian on a medley of “Pilgrim Song/The Circle Be Unbroken” and set “Little Sadie” in the Middle East.
David Lindley plays Friday, June 11 as part of the Chili Pepper and Brewfest in Snowmass Village.
Jolie Holland, “Escondida”
produced by Holland & Lemon DeGeorge (Anti-)
As part of the female group the Be Good Tanyas, Jolie Holland gave a dark-hued, understated setting to bluegrassy and old-timey songs that seemed to come from an earlier era. Now on her own, Holland gives a dark-hued, understated setting to jazzy and swing-style songs. Instead of banjos and fiddles, the instrumentation is pianos, horns and drums. But whatever the style, Holland seems inevitable attracted to the black corners of the mind. “Good Bye California” contemplates suicide (“I’m premeditating crime of a personal kind”); the bluesy “Old Fashioned Morphine” (“Sister, don’t get worried cause the world is almost done”) seems to sum up the cohesive view on “Escondida.”
Viktor Krauss, “Far From Enough”
produced by Lee Townsend (Nonesuch)
Looking just at the cover and credits, Viktor Krauss’ “Far From Enough” is my idea of an exciting album. Talk about a recording fraught with possibilities. It is the debut solo album by Viktor Krauss, regular bassist for Lyle Lovett and guitarist Bill Frisell. Krauss has hand-picked players – Frisell, dobro king Jerry Douglas, bluegrass queen and Viktor’s sister, Alison Krauss – who are not only major talents, but represent a broad range of styles. And Krauss has his band doing some unusual things: Alison’s singing is more often wordless melodic sounds than actual lyrics; Douglas plays more lap steel than dobro.
The biggest reason “Far From Enough” doesn’t fill its vast potential is that it could just as easily have been a Bill Frisell album. Douglas uses not only Frisell, but Frisell’s regular producer, Lee Townsend. The spacious string music, a crossbreed of country and jazz, is attractive enough. But I would have hoped Krauss would use the opportunity of his first album to make a more singular statement. It’s no mistake that my favorite track here, the hard-rock-influenced “Grit Lap,” is the most unique.
If you don’t know Frisell’s recent run of outstanding CDs, there’s no problem. “Far From Enough” is on a par with them.
Otis Taylor, “Double V”
produced by Taylor (Telarc)
To be honest, most CDs billed as “blues” go to the bottom of the pile. It’s the result of way too many slick, cookie-cutter blues albums.
Then there’s Otis Taylor. On a string of acclaimed album, the 55-year-old Boulderite has effortlessly made the blues his own. On “Double V,” Taylor picks guitar, banjo and mandolin and blows harmonica. But if that conjures up images of straight Delta blues, get yourself another image. Working with four different cellists – plus teenage daughter Cassie Taylor on bass and vocals, and Colorado trumpeter Ron Miles – Taylor convincingly updates the Delta style. He gently whips up mesmerizing, flowing songs that are blues more in feel than structure.
The songs are as original as the sound, intensely personal but with a universal black American perspective. With one simple lyric, Taylor bemoans what drugs did to his own mother in “Mama’s Selling Heroin.” On “Buy Myself Some Freedom,” Cassie offers the desperate plea, “I wish I could go down to a department store/Buy myself some freedom.” He also sings about slavery (“Sounds of Attica”), American aggression (“Took Their Land”) and family violence (“505 Train”), each song as distinguished as the next.
Taylor performs Aug. 26 in the Free Snowmass Summer of Music Series on Fanny Hill.
Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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A club led by two Aspen High School juniors will prepare six holiday meals for Pathfinders clients coping with chronic illness, stress, grief and loss.