May 2016 Musical Roundup
If you're wondering where the good rock and roll has gone, try Europe. I just finished listening to Supernormal Superstar, the stunning debut of The Dead Lovers (Randm Records). Call this band what you'd get if you put an early 60s' girl group, Dick Dale, heavy metal, and punk in a blender and set if for "crush." The band is based in Berlin and is the brainchild of Bavarian-born vocalist Lula and singer/guitarist Wayne Jackson, an Englishman, and between them they create irreverent Euro-spunk. How about some surf guitar and coquettish 50s style vocals mixed with 21st century attitude in a song titled "Baby Fuck That." Or some buzzy metal power chords on "Freak Show," which has the darkness of early Black Sabbath. If you like irony, you could dance to "Kill Me," with its clipped and accented rhythms. The keyboards of Mickey Hardt, Oskar Allen's sweaty drumming, and Chris Lippert's bass round out the band. I'd call Lippert the band's anchor. His meaty bass hooks evoke 60s bands such as Savoy Brown, and his riff on "59Yards" is reminiscent of Norman Greenbaum's 1969 hit "Spirit in the Sky." Lula is sometimes compared to Marianne Faithfull. This is more for her vibe than her voice, but think Faithfull in her "Sister Morphine" days, her voice sweet and quavery but spiked with hints of danger. And if you think Jackson's only incidentally invoking surf music and rockabilliy, check out the band's official video for "Special K." Is there such a thing as "fresh retro?" If not, The Dead Lovers just invented it.
Music makes for strange bedfellows. Declan McGarry hails from Winnipeg and was weaned on prairie folk (especially Neil Young), John Denver, and a bit of Tom Petty. Molly Stevens is from Macon, Georgia, and unless I miss my guess badly, she listened to a lot of gospel when she was a lass. Now the two of them are in Nashville as the duo Me and Molly and their EP You Rescue Me-downloadable from SoundCloud—is an excellent reason not to be cynical and assume the world doesn't need another Nashville duo. Molly's voice is a gem—one with the twang and nasality of Emmylou Harris, but with a husk that makes her a welcome relief from all those little-girl voices we get so sick of hearing. McGarry certainly has his Americana vocals down pat and the two of them make terrific harmonies. The title track is sweet with a bluegrass/folk feel, "Stay Baby Stay" is soulful, and both "Crazy When I Left" and "One to WalkAway" are country music for grown-ups. Add to this a penchant for straightforward lyrics that stick in your head: At the end of the day/It takes two to stay/And only one to walk away. Simple and to the point, just like this one: Say that you love me/Even if you don't/The truth is deceiving/I believe what I want/But I know what I know/And I damn sure know what I don't. Me and Molly are a hidden gem, one you should unearth.
A year ago I had never heard of the Illinois-born, Nashville-based Ashley Riley, but she's quickly becoming one of my favorites, and her latest, Through the Thin (Riled Up Records), is another winner. Riley is the sort of artist I label "hard soft," meaning she has an angelic voice, but she isn't afraid to air it. Listen to a track like "Never Think" and you can hear youth, but also growing sophistication in how she works within the arrangements to texture the piece and infuse it with moodiness. There's a splash of diva to her and she's at her best in indie-rock songs such as "Sing for Me," "Let Go," Out to Sea," and "Potion," but she's also branching out. She's fragile on "Stay," but in ways that suggest she'll bleed but not break; on "This is Not," her voice is expressive but she lets the percussion, bass, and guitar add muscle. "This Town" is a sweet acoustic number, but "Misery" is slick, dark, and a bit torchy. Ms. Riley draws comparisons to Patty Griffin and Stevie Nicks—flattering, but a heavy burden for anyone to carry. Let's just say she's hitting her stride and we're happy to be walking along side her.
Jess Ray is another artist to watch, though she could use a repertoire with more punch than we hear on Sentimental Creatures (Jess Ray Music). My favorite track was "There's Still Time," a bluegrass-influenced tempo that has some jump to it. Much of the rest is designed to spotlight Ray's voice, a fine one to be sure, but selections such as "Kiss You," "Reserve," and "Runway" are sentimental and formulaic to the max. Think lots of swallowed air, oooh-oooh filler, 4/4 arrangements, and weak rhymes. Yet just when you're tempted to say, "Get back to me in a few years," she rips off a song like "Dimensions," which is quiet, mysterious, deeply personal, and drenched in genuine emotion. I'm not usually an advocate of single-track downloads, but you might want to poke around this album and harvest what whets your appetite.