Positive Feedback ISSUE 63
september/october 2012

 

 

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun: Part Two
by Dr. Sardonicas

 

kasey chambers

Kasey Chambers, Carnival 2006 - Warner Brothers – RB CD

Humans are stuck with generalizations… they're hardwired into our neurology just as fundamentally as is most people's instinctive hatred of creamed spinach. So… to describe something new or novel, we very often do so by saying, "Well… it tastes like chicken;" or the memorable "OK, so he's kind of a Baldwin." We build general categories, and then slot things, people, experiences, food, et al… into those representational categories. We generalize, because we have to.

When Kasey first hit in 2000 with, Captain, the improbable Aussie youngun' kept getting compared (generalized to something familiar) to Lucinda Williams, which I don't, and never have, understood. Love 'em both, but they never occur concurrently in my neural net. I always thought Kasey sounded a bit more like Julie Miller, but hey… that's just me. About the only things I think Kasey and Lucinda really share are: individuality, being sexy as hell, and possessing bit of nasal twang, which is a constant with Lucinda, but (as of this outing), seems to come and go with Kasey… which kinda makes sense when you think about it.

Don't get me wrong. I am not saying our Australian kin don't have country… but the water swirls a different way, and it's a different country.

Captain did very well and got a lot of attention for Ms. Chambers, and her sophomore outing in 2002, Barricades and Brickwalls, neatly dodged that always perilous second album slump, as she pretty much stuck with the approach she took to her first album (smart girl).

A year later, with Wayward Angel, things began to change. Of course, because she began to change, she lost some momentum, sales wise… but the album was still very well crafted irrespective of being less popular than her first two outings. Some thought it a bit tedious, but it just wasn't quite as upbeat as her first two releases. Me, I figured somewhere in there she got her heart ripped out, as twenty-somethings are wont to do. Hard to be all bright and chirpy when your life is going to shit.

Kasey remains one of the most interesting and enjoyable pop female artists of the past decade, and I expect she will continue to make her own way… and good on for her for doing so.

With Carnival, I expect the comparisons to Lucinda will come to an end. She finally made the break from her breakout niche. There is very little "country-fication" here. From the hard-rocking, "I Got You Now," to the directly moist crotch, "You Make Me Sing," our little down-under waif, is a woman now in her own right. Yeah, that tiniest bit of reedy-nasal, little-girl thing is still there, but if you listen carefully you can hear her flipping it on and off as it suits, rather than defines, her.

I say this next part regretfully, but working with family sometimes doesn't make it through into the big time. I will just say what doesn't work on this disc (and it's not that much), can mostly be laid right at the feet of her brother, the producer. Time she found a producer more worthy of her gift. Sorry man, but that's the cold truth.

That being said, this is one of those satisfyingly crafted pop albums you will find yourself returning to, and not just if you are Lucinda Williams freak and you need a fix because it's been too long since her last album.

Sonics are quite good.

 

Azure Ray

Azure Ray, Drawing Down the Moon 2010 Saddle Creek

This is one of those delicate, Innocence Mission-like (see what I mean about generalizations?), albums; quiet, atmospheric, folky… and more or less completely absent any sharp edges. And like Innocence Mission, Azure Ray adroitly treads that delicate line between soft and moribund.

Azure Ray is Orenda Fink and Maria Taylor. The duo was quite active pre-2010 with three albums and several EP's. Going their individual ways for a number of years, 2010's, Drawing Down the Moon marks their reunion effort.

This disc is probably most notable for how little the duo has changed in the intervening years, which makes me wonder about why they split the sheets (so to speak) and what drove their decision to reunite.

I dunno… these days my increasingly dystopian, cynical heart always follows the money and while most of us fervently hope that art is not always held hostage to the filthy lucre, we all know it is, and has always been; it's a romantic fantasy to think otherwise. Money drives everything. As Chris Rea so poignantly stated, "We are on the motorway to hell." Me, I just suggest your investment portfolio is dominated by canned food and shotguns.

And now, back to our regularly scheduled program.

People, who liked Azure Ray when they were together years ago and did, or did not, follow their individual paths when they parted ways as a duo will probably buy this album out of curiosity (if for no other reason). Hip Newbies will buy it because it's cool (a bit obscure, but not dangerously so… politically correct packaging and all that), and it's good, a clear standout in the piranha-like school of folkie competitors. In other words… pretty much a sure thing to make a bit of money and bring the girls out of obscurity.

Their history and possible motivation for rejoining aside… this album stands on its own as an extremely appealing mix of lightly whispered, to straight ahead folk-influenced teary pop. It's nuanced, emotional and increasingly seductive with repeated play. If you have a female significant other, she will probably love it (unless she favors groups like Kitty, Hole, et al).

"Make Your Heart," "Shouldn't have Loved," are standouts that highlight the duo's seamless, creamy smooth harmonies. My favorite is, "In the Fog." "When the hour is late and all is lost to find nothing more than a song can find its way out tonight to find you," resonates with this old soul.

Yes, as is so often the case with this genre, there is some forgettable material, here and there, but never annoyingly so. I never feel motivated to skip tracks, which violates the cardinal audiophile rule that states clearly… if you actually listen to a non-classical disc all the way through the Audiophile Police will revoke your membership.

This disc is comprised mostly of yearning and even tragic lullabies, and it weaves its charm like that hippie chick who always sat in the very back of Western Civ., who never wore makeup, talked or smiled much, but still smelled like flowers and had eyes like the ocean.

Not an album for the typical attention-challenged audiophile, but heartfelt, lovely and touching nonetheless.

Sonics are layered and rich, more than etched and detailed. Fits the music very well, I should think.

 

Florence & the Machine

Florence & the Machine, Lungs 2009 Universal Republic RB CD

As Monty Python used to say, "And now for something completely different."

Here is a new voice truly worthy of serious consideration.

In her first full album release, Florence Welsh is seductive in every sense of the word, with "Twilight" good-looks and a truly distinctive vocal character and style. This debut album sounds like the journeyman effort of a well-established artist… none of the jittery ups and downs that so often characterize new artists who are still trying to get clear on who and what they are.

You can insert any number of artistic and stylistic influence adjectives in describing this work and still not get it. Perhaps that's the point; lovely Florence can move so unexpectedly and competently among them, she is never constrained by just one or two. Stylistically, most of the cuts are nominally mid-tempo rockers. Lushly backed by The Machine (and some fairly tasteful orchestration) Lungs will wake you up, startle your senses, and tickle your ribs, all without unduly disturbing your chi.

And it's FUN. "Kiss with a Fist" is a hugely amusing paean to domestic violence. While I in no way endorse any sort of violence (except perhaps that of an anonymous crossbow bolt to the progressively insane fluffy yapper that lives, chained to a fence, across the no-man's land that separates my sub-division from District-13 behind it… I am just saying…), and fully acknowledging this song would probably create a riot at any iteration of the Lilith Fair, it rocks and it's funny as hell. I am reminded of Tonio K's, "Hatred."

This is one of those albums where each successive cut is a surprise. You can't predict what is coming from what has been. I love that. That whole, blinking rapidly while breathing, "What the hell?" is one of my favorite musical experiences. It reminds me of hearing P.J. Harvey for the first time on headphones in the Seattle airport and thinking I was having a stroke (not to infer that P.J. and Florence have much in common musically, or otherwise).

I mean, what does one do with such a woman, who sings "My Boy Builds Coffins?"

Florence is the real deal, and for a first album, Lungs is nothing short of remarkable. If she can maintain this level of authenticity and bravery, her obvious skills and talent will carry her into the pantheon of female artists who matter.

Brava!

Sonics tend very naturally to follow the material… rash and clangy to warm and rich.

 

Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings

Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, I Learned the Hard Way 2010 Daptone Recording: RB CD

If you were a fan of 60's and 70's Soul, this retro recording may be just your cup of tea. I Learned the Hard Way isn't just a nod to a long-gone era, or a tongue in cheek send up. Other than the production values (which are very good), I would defy most listeners to differentiate between this work, and the "real deal," which in effect, makes it the real deal. Remarkable.

Former prison-guard, Ms. Jones is simply faultless and frozen in time. Vocal styles, backup, instrumentation, arrangements… it all rings absolutely true.

There are a few nods to the blues, like "If You Call," just as you would expect, but no one is going to mistake this for a Koko Taylor album. This is pure soul! "Mama Don't Like My Man" just knocks me out; chunky guitar backing, achingly perfect backing vocals and this deft flow that sends me back to state-dependent memories of AM radio, malt liquor and Camel straights (mine, not theirs).

"Better Things" would have been an instant classic in the day. Now it is sadly a niche marvel only a modest number of people will ever hear.

I think of the pap that dominates public-access pop music (knowing many of the people behind this stuff know better) and I weep. Again we come back to money. Who gives a crap if it is crap, as long as it's crap that sells? Well, Sharon cares. She has to know she will be lucky to get any airplay and probably most of these discs will be sold at concerts, but still no compromise. Sometimes in a sea of greed-driven dreck there are gems and this definitely is one.

As I listed to this disc, I found myself wondering what would be the fate of similar works in such territory as formerly occupied by the likes of: Cold Blood; Blood, Sweat and Tears, Quicksilver Messenger Service; Donovan, et al.? Holy crap, am I just getting old?

Don't get me wrong. There is a wealth of very talented people carrying on with these influences integrated and "modernized." That's not what I am saying. I think to "get" what I mean, you need to pop for this disc… and then revisit this question (assuming it interests you), or alternatively continue to sift through modern pop for that fleeting satisfaction of recognizing from whence something originated… or stay with your historical recordings, or join the warm, yeasty comfort of the herd and just watch American Idol, hoping for another homogenized hero for the moment.

Absolutely recommended.

Sonics are very good.

 

Sarah McLachlan

Sarah McLachlan, Laws of Illusion 2010 Arista RB CD

I don't care how enlightened you are, when your marriage goes south your mellow is going to get harshed, big time. And if you are an artist it ought to show in your work, especially if this is your first full-blown studio work in nearly a decade.

You got two young daughters who, at the very least, are going to be a bit "concerned" that mommy and daddy are going their separate ways, and this doesn't piss you off? You stuck your career on hold at its peak to play house, and now you are picking the pieces up and starting again. No resentment or angst there? Wow, I can't believe she doesn't want cut a bitch and sing about the arterial blood flow. Remember how Stevie and Lindsay used to slice each other up? Good times, good times.

Maybe she was heavily medicated. Or maybe, once again money raised its ugly head and she was advised to take the high road and not tarnish her sweet image, by actually telling the truth and saying what a douchebag her husband was (we all are). Geez, a peanut butter sandwich as a metaphor for this kind of loss? Jesus wept.

Understand I have loved Sarah… right from the beginning. She has one of those achingly beautiful voices that captures and holds. Like Mary Black, Eva Cassidy and so on… she is a vocal joy, irrespective of the material. And I have ignored all the Lilith stuff, because we all have our causes.

But she has gone deep before in her albums, exploring the darker side of things. Maybe it was just easier to talk about the generic pain and suffering of others, than her own broken heart; I don't know.

She doesn't want to share… so be it. Chose the stoic path… that is her right, but to be apparently unchanged by it? Give me a break. Go ahead, compare this to anything she did ten years ago, and try to discern appreciable differences. Only towards the very last, "Bring on the Wonder" comes close, but it's still more focused on sounding like Enya, than giving us the reality. I find myself imagining her doing this song acappella, and letting it all hang out, and I get the chills… but it didn't happen.

I know it's not nice to bag on this sweet, sincere woman, and I am not trashing the album, which is quite pretty and pleasant. I am more like the friend who tells you, "Knock this fake shit off, and let it out," and then holds you while you cry and beat on my chest in anger and frustration, because of the immutable fact that no one can hurt us more than those we love. Well, either that or go get drunk with you at the local strip club. Either way works for me.

I am deeply sorry for your loss, Ms. McLachlan. Believe me; I know precisely how it feels. I just wish you had trusted your fans enough to share it with us. Maybe you could have helped yourself and us too, if you had.

Sonics are what you would expect… but if you know the back story, this disc will just make you doubly sad.

 

Twelve Girls Band

Twelve Girls Band, Twelve Girls Band Release Date – Unknown: 2-XRCD

Ok, this is going to annoy you (I know it would me), because it's the artists I am touting, rather than the album. The reason for this is I doubt there is any domestic source for this XRCD release (mine came directly from China)… but hey, I am sure some of our readers will have sources for it although I poked around in the XRCD catalog and couldn't find anything.

Part of the problem is that some of their releases were done somewhat differently, dependent upon the intended market. So, it is quite possible this disc might exist in this form, only in the Chinese release. Part of the cut list tracks (kind of) with Romantic Energy, which is available domestically, but I see no indication that Romantic Energy is an XR or a double. I suspect I am listening to a compilation disc, specifically assembled for the domestic market.

All this doesn't explain why I can't find it under XRCD, but such is the situation.

You can also find them on YouTube.

Also annoying is that Twelve Girls Band is really thirteen girls. Don't ask… my anniversary is 7/8/9 for the very same reason that 13 women are 12.

The members of this unique ensemble are all classically (and superbly) trained and use traditional Chinese instruments in a somewhat "fused" manner with various western and eastern musical forms.

In 2003 they hit hard in both the PRC (People's Republic of China) and Japan. They even toured the US in 2004 and again in 2005 (and I think in 2007), but my first exposure to them was the double XR disc I excitedly discovered in a pile of my Chinese wife's CD's.

It's simply too big a world now, musically or any other way, to know exhaustively what is happening across the spectrum. I doubt even the full-time folks can keep up.

These beautiful women (and make no mistake, they are beautiful as well as talented) have a website, but to say it is uninformative for westerners would be gentle.

So, with this paucity of information, I jauntily proceed.

First, I am not a huge fan of traditional Asian music… "angular banjos" and all that, but like my wife this work is neither Chinese nor Western, but a beautiful amalgam of whatever musical styles they choose to tackle. At one point, I could swear there was a loop of Native American chanting in one cut. There are middle-eastern flavored songs, and at least one familiar Latin tune (no, I am not going to tell you which one).

The musicianship is stunning, of enormous breadth, and their ability to incorporate various musical styles is nothing short of brilliant. There is even the occasional vocal, which I found delightful.

This is not a novelty act, or disc. These folks could not be more serious about what they are doing and absolutely warrant respect from serious music listeners, where ever they may be. Fun, surprising, perplexing and beguiling… just look them up on the net and buy one of their domestically available CD's to see what I am getting at. You won't be sorry.

And, as you might reasonably expect, the sonics are terrific. The two discs come in a faux mahogany box. Nice touch, without damaging the rainforest.

Do yourself a favor and have a delicious intercultural musical experience.

 

 

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