Jim Armenti and the Glories of Local Rock


The Herd



What sustains rock and roll? It sure as hell isn’t record companies, promoters, or the band of thieves posing as consumer servants called iTunes. Radio does it part, but what it really boils down to is local musicians who get bitten by the bug at an early age, have no desire to take the cure, and keep cranking it out for the townies. In Western Massachusetts, Jim Armenti is among the rock and roll warrior caste. He’s in numerous bands, teaches music at local music stores, hires himself out as rock and roll “coach,” and though you may not know his name, he’s penned songs for those you probably do know: Pam Tillis, Dar Williams, and Cry, Cry, Cry to name a few. Every now and then he does some solo gigs and The Herd is his second solo recording (though it enlists the help of old sidekicks such as Ray Mason.)

Also found on Armenti’s resume is a twenty-three-year teaching music at the local prison, and many of The Herd’s eleven tracks are based on the reflections, stories, and conversations of inmates. Like that material, much of what Armenti plays is raw and, to those accustomed to slick studio production, unpolished. To be sure, there’s a lot of mileage on Armenti’s voice and it can now be best described as “earnest.” But back to the sound and vibe of the album. If you find this recording a bit on the ragged side, it’s probably because you’ve become too accustomed to “American Idol”-like hype. Another thing that has sustained rock and roll through the decades has been its willingness to point a middle digit at ideals of homogeneity and conformity. Listen hard to Armenti’s guitar and you’ll waltz through some styles once (and now) thought scandalous among many: rockabilly, acid rock, reggae, R & B….

Is this a breakthrough recording? Nope; Armenti has no desire to join the washed-and-scrubbed crowd. Is it “art?” Probably not. Is it a piece of local rock and roll that reminds us of rock’s branch and roots? Now you’re talking.

Here's one of Jim's online guitar lessons.


Mad Agnes Swan Song





The cover photo of the latest release from the trio Mad Agnes (Margo Hennebach, Adrienne Jones, Mark Saunders) features an empty room bathed in pastels and white light, its paint peeling and plaster falling. I regret to inform, that’s a metaphor for the group—as of June 4, Mad Agnes will disband. Those who have come to love their gorgeous harmonies and quiet music will surely greet this as bad news indeed, though you can purchase hush as a balm and enjoy it for years to come.

The group’s third and final CD includes all that was wondrous about Mad Agnes and, perhaps, a few of the reasons why they never quite broke through. The music is (mostly) cerebral and either overtly or latently spiritual, and it often stretches categories to lie somewhere between folk, musical theater, and light classical. This suggests an interesting mash up, but it also means that much of it is melodically ambiguous. What’s lacking are memorable hooks; Mad Agnes’ music makes you muse more than hum. As for the song content, adjectives such as “sweet” and “tranquil” come to mind. That’s not a bad thing by any means, but in my view hush could have benefitted from some contrasting grit. Instead, the trio tries to find balance through retro arrangements and humor. I liked the song “Running in England” quite a bit, though its arrangement was reminiscent of The Association circa 1969. The splashes of humor didn’t work for me, perhaps because their version runs toward wholesomeness and I prefer it with more edge. “Julia,” a collection of silly rhymes inspired by Julia Child, is clever, but felt more like a novelty song that works better on stage with a chuckling audience. And, sorry, but white folks trying to rap—the trio’s cover of “Mother’s Planet”—just doesn’t work for me.

My critique notwithstanding, in a world consumed by anger and screaming heads, Mad Agnes was a needed calm in the storm. There is honesty, decency, and goodness in their music, qualities also found in abundance on hush. I think they used the lower case deliberately and not because they were trying to piggyback on e. e. cummings. Buy their swan song CD and enjoy moments of bliss and Zen. Good luck to all—you will be missed.

Here's a Mad Agnes sampler.


Ana Moura Dazzles with Live Album



World Village 468103


Those who have heard one of fadista Ana Moura’s three studio albums already know that she has an amazing voice. Just how good is abundantly clear on her latest release, Coliseu, a live album that features Moura, bass player Filipe Larsen, and guitar wizards José Manuel Neto and José Elmiro Nunes. Larsen sets jazzy scaffolding and Neto and Nunes dazzle on Portuguese acoustic guitar—and their faster-paced playing is evocative of Spanish flamenco, but also highlights some of the regional differences (fewer arpeggios, more attention to pauses and, always, framing for song rather than dance).But there is no question who’s the star of the ensemble. The album’s fifteen tracks—culled from two sold-out performance, one in Porto and one in Lisbon—capture Moura’s magic. Hers is the sort of voice that can move on to tears one moment and dancing across the room the next. It also packs the power of an earthquake. She seeks to be faithful to the fado tradition of Portuguese idol Amália Rodrigues in spirit, but does not seek to be crowned as her heir. Fado purists will note that Moura takes liberties with fado, though I’d describe her as an interpreter seeking to bring the music to a new generation. She captures the flair of fado—with all its Jewish and Moorish influences—but filters it through the sensibilities of Euro-jazz and pop-fused classical music. Whatever she’s doing, it’s working. You will hear her audiences burst into applause at her throaty virtuosity and by the time you’re done listening, you’ll join them.

Check out this YouTube clip.