Lisa Bell, 3 Pairs of Boots, and More: Sounds Like Who?

Sometimes the music business reminds me of trying to find a teaching job in the humanities. Even if you’ve already done noteworthy things, how does one attract attention in a crowded field? In music, one way is to invite comparisons to someone who has already made it. Joy Williams and Brandi Carlile are common comparisons.  

Carlile is hot right now, so let’s kick off with notes from a paste project of hers. NoiseTrade/Paste Magazine has released four tracks from an August 30, 2012 performance. It’s the voice and energy that dazzle more than instrumental trickery. Listen to “100” and you’ll hear Carlile’s poppy sense of phrasing. “Hard Way Home” uses plinky keys to set the table for a mix of pop, sass, and cowgirl. She’s more introspective in thinking about work and the PR machine on “That Wasn’t Me.” Even 7 years ago it wasn’t hard to tell that Carlile was special.

Lisa Bell gets the Carlile treatment, as well as mentions of Bonnie Raitt and Norah Jones. Huh? How’s that work? Better than you might think. It helps that Bell is no kid; she’s a Boulder, Colorado mom whose brood has grown and flown the coop. Like Lori McKenna, she brings maturity and real-life experience to bear on her new release Back Seat. In the title song Bell directly addresses her life’s new direction: I’m not willing to take a back seat/While my dreams pass me by. Bell sings with burnished maturity while a rolling organ and electric piano play in the background. And, yes, it’s the sort of jazz/pop amalgam that Norah Jones might do. You’ll hear loads of diverse instrumentation on this record–everything from keys and guitars to ukes and saxophone. “Meet Me in the Space in Between” is cool jazz, the kind of song one might expect from a performer who has covered the old chestnut “Skylark.” “I Can’t Stand the Rain” is another from the same mold, though as a featured single from the LP it’s catchier than “Space in Between.” There’s a nice soulful hop to the way she scans the lines: But I can’t stand the rain/Clouding my vision/It takes it all away/Can’t make a decision. There’s also a dramatic electric guitar bridge. “Get in the Flow” has more of a folk vibe; “India” is ambient; and “Always Chasing Darkness” has a memorable repeating refrain that pops out of the moody wrapper of the rest of the song. “The Road is Always Longer” has blues rock colorings that makes me see the Bonnie Raitt evocations, but damned if I hear any Brandi Carlile. Lisa Bell doesn’t need to be compared to anyone. Call her a better-late-than-never revelation in her own right. ★★★★★

The band name 3 Pairs of Boots intrigues in that it’s actually a country duo, so one wonders where the third pair of boots factors in. Laura Arias and Andrew Stern are based in the Bay Area, but their hearts are more Austin than Oakland. They cite The Byrds, The Smiths, Buffalo Springfield, and Tom Petty among their influences, but because Arias handles lead vocals there are inevitable evocations of The Civil Wars’ Joy Williams. Ignore them if you run across them. 3 Pairs of Boots is definitely more country. “Hey I’m On My Way” is a honky-tonk styled road trip across Route 66 and is populated with hard drinkers, fighters, “star-crossed lovers,” and a (partly apocryphal) explanation of how Tucumcari, New Mexico got its name. “It Ain’tEasy”jordan whitmore has a moral; in this case, that one should always do the right thing, not the easy one. “He Lost My Number” feels like country folk grafted to an early 60s pop song and a Laurel Canyon-style chorus. Remember Joni Mitchell’s “Circle Game?” Give it some twang and “Slipping Away” evokes its child moving through life sentiment. And it doesn’t get more country than songs like “Always Loved Cowboys,” the can’t-catch-a-break “Gone South,” or the girl who loves a poor boy “Dollar Store.” And, no, I don’t hear any Joy Williams in Arias’s voice. This band is exactly as it bills itself: country music crooned by Arias and solid guitar work from Stern. ★★★

Jordan Whitmore draws Carlile and Williams analogies. Also Sheryl Crow and Shawn Colvin. Strange given that Good Things is her 5th record. I can only think that’s because her repertoire is hard to describe. “Something Different” is a country/rock blend that puts her desire for change upfront. I really like the slight catch in her voice on this one. “All My Might” is a spacey love song and there’s hint of Hawaiian guitar in “Changing Your Mind.” “Good Things” invokes a spare blues rock feel. Similarly, both “What If” and “I Wish You Would” feel like power ballads that stop short of crossing the line. Frankly, I don’t hear much of Crow, Williams, Colvin, or Carlile on Good Things. Whitmore has a nice voice, but it sometimes lacks clarity. Her songwriting, though sincere, veers too close to pop phrasing to stand out. It might be time to consider a shift in direction. ★★ ½

Short Cuts:

Joseph is a three-sisters band­–Allison, Meegan, and Natalie Closner (Schepman)–from Oregon. Their handle is that of the town in which they grew up. Good Luck Kid is their second full-length album–they also have an EP­–and it’s decidedly in the pop vein. The Closners attracted quite bit of buzz with their previous release and are actively promoting their new single “Fighter.” The title track is a bit grittier, but most of the tracks I sampled follow the same basic formula: basic electric guitar with lots of reverb and perhaps some percussion backing, but the songs are rooted in three-part harmonies. I liked their energy but their vocals are too chipmunk-like for my taste. ★★

Aviva Chernik sings songs from the Sephardic tradition and once fronted the band Jaffa. La Serena is her first post-Jaffa solo project, though Chernik is hardly alone on her debut. Justin Gray adds splashes of jazz and Indian music, and world music artists Maryem and Ernie Tollar also appear. The album also pays homage to 92-year-old Balkan Ladino artist Flory Jagoda. Chernik is like the album’s namesake siren, except she leads us to good places. Check out the meditative grooves of the title track; you will hear the jazz influences in that one. “Adon Olam” is a poem set to a Yemeni melody that starts slowly, begins to sway, and then settles into a liturgical space. “Kol Dodi” takes its lyrics from the Bible’s Song of Songs, which celebrates carnality. And, of course, there are songs from Ms. Jagoda. ★★★★    

Rob Weir

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