More New Music
Brett Wiscons is an Indiana-raised musician who grew up influenced by everything from Sade to The Eagles and Hootie & the Blowfish. These influences help explain his self-admitted love of strong melodies. His third LP—and he also has two EPs–The Heineken Sessions (MAD Diamond Entertainment) falls in that loose category known as "Americana," that's a mix of rock, acoustic folk, and country. Many of the songs are about grabbing onto love when you find it. He kicks off with a real crowd-pleaser, "Sarazona" with buzzy guitar, a great bass groove, loads of hooks, and an infectious tune. He pays homage to his adolescence and the phenomenon on "Indiana Summer," which includes a clever line about how we all acquire some lessons and priorities along the way: Always try to be the engine/But I'm somehow the caboose" Then there was you– Wiscon does a great job of mixing styles. "Side Stage" has raw, grungy edges that sound as if they originated well to the south of Indiana; "Sophia's Winery" is in hand-clapping Dixieland party mode; and "Sooner or Later" features a bit of sashay that blends rolling organ notes into a melody that's at once sweet and soulful, with bright riffs and hooks running throughout. "Don't Be the One" is simply a terrific song with chart potential. One caveat: that song is on the album twice, once as a power pop duet with Anne Balbo and again as an acoustic cover. The second is miles better–Balbo sounds too much like she's channeling Michael Jackson.
Jonny 8Track is an English bloke who plays acoustic guitar and rock-style drums. He counts among his influences everyone from Lou Reed and Keith Moon to indie/garage bands such as The The, The Shins, and Detroit Cobras. His eponymous EP on Austin's Chicken Ranch Records shows how he brings those strands together. He doesn't credit this, but a song like "Thirty Three RPM" also exudes skiffle influence—not just in its homage to vinyl LPs, but also in its finger snapping coolness and its evocation of a bygone era. There's a lot going on in just a few tracks. "White Lie" is raw and edgy like folked-out punk, but you might think him a sunshine pop artist on "All America Taught Me," unless you pay attention to lyrics such as "I wish I were somewhere else" and realize it won't be any nationalist's campaign song in the near future. Intriguing stuff that feels like yesterday is today's tomorrow.
Ingrid Michaelson is one of the hottest singers in America these days. Her Hell No Tour is playing to packed houses and there's a CD out with some of its highlights. If you don't know her yet, you probably will soon. Her repertoire is a pop/folk/rock hybrid and she's quirky enough to invoke Bjork comparisons. Tween, teen, and young adult women love her like she's The Beatles with breasts, and why not? Her insouciance and strong-woman messages make her a good role model. Check out her 2008 hit "Be Ok," with its "I just wanna be ok" mantra hook and zipper song structure that makes it an infinitely adaptable song. She works hard at avoiding boxes. If you hear a song like "Weak" you begin to think "folk rock and slick as hell," but it has so much verve and attitude you just go with it. Then she further upsets expectations with a song like the piano-based "Turning Out" that moves between thick and soupy to slow and tender. Or one like "Home" that churns her voice through an echo chamber until it's like a bell ringing in a canyon; or the "The Lotto," a hand jive pop gospel mélange. The indie pop band AJR appears on several tracks. Ingrid Michaelson? Hell yes!
If you'd rather hear music stripped to the bone, try Anna and Elizabeth, whose Sun to Sun is evocative of records folks like Mike Seeger and Hazel Dickens used to make–songs of uncertain origin that thrived in the hills and hollows. Anna Roberts-Gevalt plays guitar and fiddle; Elizabeth LaPrelle the banjo, but all of the instrumentation is sparse, as befits material drawn from the public domain and sung by contrasting/harmonizing voices: one sharp and twangy, the second smoother. The title track is a variant of "Mule Skinner Blues" and probably originated as a slave song. "Old Kimball" is a textbook case of the folk process, a song that first surfaced as a blues song, "Skew Bald," mutated into "Old Kimball," and reappeared as the folk/pop "Stewball." And if you like equine-themed material, there's also "Whole Heap of Little Horses," a lullaby that's been done by everyone from The Chieftains to Patty Griffin. Check out their take on "When I Was a Little Girl," which was once part of Nina Simone's repertoire. After all, who doesn't love a song about a plague victim?
Anna and Elizabeth will appear at the Ashfield (MA) Congregational Church on November 5.
The Bare, an EP by Cash Wilson, reminds me of an early Neil Young project, a comment not intended to suggest he's derivative. Okay, he does have a song titled "River," but it's nothing like Neil's. But he does sing in high, pained tones with hints of husk, nasality and quaver. He also sports a country/folk repertoire, and plays his acoustic guitar as if it's a lead electric. The album title refers to the fact that most of it is just voice and guitar, but Wilson performs with enough gusto that the Bare seldom feels spare. Wilson lives in Nashville and hails from Kentucky, but has apparently spent some time in North Carolina; he's the latest artist to pen a Tarheel song ("Carolina"). I admired the way Wilson frames a song. On "Stones Throw" he uses energetic strums and percussive beats to color his voice and heighten drama for a song about a relationship unwinding in slo-mo. Wilson doesn't seem to be touring at present, but this EP is worth checking out.