February Music Cleanout: McKay, Steep Canyon, Motsenbocker, Covenhoven, Wainwright, Trojano


Three words to remember: John Griffin McKay. His American Fantasy (Noisetrade) is a small masterpiece that captured me with its opening lines: Don't want to read another novel/About the story of a man/How he loaded up his rifle/And brought peace throughout the land/Don't want a Holy Ghost revival/Made by the greediness of man/It's not about the soul's survival/But the money in your hand. McKay hails from Waco, Texas, but he's having nothing to do with country music clichés, faux morality, or nostrums. His style is acoustic country with occasional rock interludes, but his lyrical sensibility put me in mind of artists such as Ari Hest and David Ramirez, who write songs for adults. McKay calls himself "a broken man writing songs for broken people" and we certainly hear that in quiet dark songs such as "Poison in Our Veins," or in the thick bass/crunchy power chord rock of "Lay Down Your Gun." Yet there's also a sweetness to much of McKay's music–the gentle acoustic backing to "The Pain's Right Here," the ringing harmonics of "More Than Living," and the memorable hooks of "Before I Sleep," the last with the poignant line: If hope is where the heart is/Then I'm a hopeless wanderer. You simply must check out the deliberately paced 6:32 title track, which is heavy on atmospherics and is deliciously enigmatic. I have a feeling we'll be hearing more from this artist.

Naming a favorite bluegrass band these days is about as easy as choosing a favorite flavor at a Ben & Jerry's scoop shop, but I'll take a big dish of Steep Canyon Rangers any day of the week. They've got a new CD, On the Radio (Rounder) that exudes why so many of us love this band. There is, first of all, the refreshing honesty of the title track, which admits they're revivalists, not hillbillies from the hollows: I was raised on the sound of the radio/When I need to go back, I turn it up loud/And I'm ready to go. Then there are the polished lead vocals of Woody Platt that are all about the melody, not putting on an affected twang. "Blue Velvet Rain" is simply a great tune and it's made all the more so by Mike Guggino's sizzling mando licks. If you'd prefer a foot-stomper, try "Nobody Knows You," with breakout banjo from Graham Sharp and Nicky Sanders adding fiery fiddle while Charles Humphrey (bass) and Mike Ashworth (box percussion) establish such solid foundations that neither Sharp nor Sanders can knock them down. Or maybe you want some gospel evocations ("Stand and Deliver"). This band is flat-out great.

Tyler Motsenbocker has a new CD about to release and if it's anything like his 2013 EP Rivers and Roads (Tooth & Nail) it will be a cause for celebration. In the interim, Rivers and Roads is yours to download for a tip, and you can sample it first just to make sure it's your cup of tea: http://www.tysonmotsenbocker.com/listen/ Motsenbacker hails from Washington State, but hit the road when his mother died and hiked the coast south to California, where he now resides. Along the way he used his pen to work out some grief, identity issues, and values. Motsenbacker generally works with a resonant acoustic guitar and had a voice that at times has smoothness evocative of a youthful Phil Ochs. This is especially true on "Path in the Weeds." It, like other introspective songs such as "I Still Have to Go," explores the tension between longings for home and the realization that the answers to vaguely defined questions lie elsewhere. There's an impressive amount of stylistic variety on this five-track collection–everything from the crestfallen vocal/sparse piano "Blink Behind the Leaves" to the thick arrangement of "Footfalls," the latter a real crowd pleaser that's the optimistic antidote to melancholy : Open your eyes you're alive/Another fine night near the ocean/Please don't cry, it's alright/You're always going to be my darling.    

It might sound pretentious for a solo artist to have his own band name, but Covenhoven makes a lot of sense when you learn that it's the name of a cabin built deep in the Wyoming woods by Joel Van Horne's grandfather. The Wild and Free pays homage to the big spaces that make us both wistful and humble. Van Horne calls his style "symphonic folk," by which he means the arrangements are lush and haunting. Although he's sometimes compared to Bon Iver, to me the album felt like a folked-down version of Snow Patrol, especially in the ways Van Horne's seamless waves of sound soothe and cleanse. Nothing is rushed, lest something important be lost. On the title track, we find Van Horne walking his inner child down the trails of time; in "Blind Spots" he sings:  With our pains replaced with scars/Like planes mistaken for the stars/We set out hungry like borrowed drifter's appetite–his prescription for seeking things not yet discovered. The Wild and Free put me in mind of an Epicurean perambulating through the woods in pursuit of the wisdom that comes from syncing nature and desire.      

Not My Cuppa Tea

Biology is destiny when it comes to the vocal abilities of anyone born into the extended McGarrigle/Wainwright clan. That said, the appeal of Rufus Wainwright eludes me and his Live at Coventry download didn't change my mind. He has written operas and theater pieces that are, in a nutshell, what I don't like about his music. Live at Coventry finds Wainwright behind the piano—especially the bright keys. There's no doubt he's a superb vocalist, but the current repertoire is cabaret-style garish and overwrought. Wainwright has adoring fans and has added new ones since he has come out as gay, but there's a sense of trying too hard to prove his gay cred—right down to affected feyness. Mostly, though, the songs I sampled–"Poses," "Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk," and "Foolish Love"–are all-atmosphere-no-substance forgettable, as background piano bar music tends to be. 

Sometimes a new CD arrives by an artist about whom there I some buzz. I listen, shrug, and move on. I've had people whose views I respect tell me about Zak Trojano and I can hear potential, but his CD, Yesterday's Sun (WhistlePig Records), sounded homespun and not in a good way. A few tracks caught my attention, like "Get Me Right," but I'm pretty sure I've heard its central lick in an old country song whose title I can't recall. Another one I liked was the folky "Long Black Vine." For me, though, Trojano's folk songs lack sweetness, his blues lack grit, the vocals are inconsistent, the guitar's bass notes need more contrasting treble, and the production is muddy. 

Rob Weir


Ricki and the Flash: Meryl Can Rock, but...

Directed by Jonathan Demme
TriStar Pictures, 101 minutes, PG-13 (drugs and language)
* *

We’ve finally found something Meryl Streep can’t do: wear heavy mascara. In Ricki and the Flash Streep plays an ageing woman who chucked domesticity and responsible motherhood in pursuit of rock n’ roll glory. We first meet her in an LA bar as Ricki Rendazzo, where she’s holding court as the lead vocalist of The Flash, a cover band the likes of which you’re unlikely to hear at a watering hole near you (Joe Vitale, Rick Rosas, Gabriel Ebert, and Rick Springfield). Can Streep sing rock and roll? Yep—with gusto, power, and husk. Can she play guitar? Yep—she learned how for the role. Does she look like a rocker? Well…. the cornrows are a bit much and her black mascara application would only look Goth on a raccoon, but she mostly pulls off the illusion. Springfield is, of course, a legitimate rocker and he takes all the heavy guitar leads. As Greg, he’s also Ricki’s on-again/off-again lover. He’s nuts about her, but Ricki has commitment issues galore.

Would that the rest of the film was as good as the music. Director Jonathan Demme knows how to film rock (Stop Making Sense, Storefront Hitchcock, three Neil Young films) and he’s a good documentarian (Cousin Bobby, Man from Plains), but his Hollywood career has been uneven and seems to have plateaued since Silence of the Lambs (1992) and Philadelphia (1993). Ricki and the Flash won’t get him to the next level. Once you’re done singing along with some of your favorite hits, what’s left is an overwrought rom-com that is more likely to induce eye rolls than huzzahs.

The film takes a turn for the worse when Ricki, whose real name is Linda, is summoned to Indianapolis to help her ex-husband Pete (Kevin Kline) deal with their daughter Julie (Mamie Gummer, Streep’s real-life daughter), who is suicidal after being dumped by her longtime partner. Julie is both a mental and physical wreck prone to angry outbursts as she parades around in PJs, puffy eyes, and rat’s nest hair. What can an absentee mom do to help? Can she reconcile with Julie and her two estranged sons who delight in cataloging her maternal inadequacies? What about Maureen (Audra McDonald) the step-mom who actually raised Linda’s three children? Did I mention that eldest son Daniel (Ben Platt) is engaged to snooty princess Oma (Charlotte Rae), neither of whom want Linda at their wedding? Or that youngest son Josh (Sebastian Stan) is gay? Shouldn’t there be a fourth child who is physically and/or mentally challenged? Can Linda/Ricki ever accept Greg’s love?

The better question to ask is: Do you see anything remotely new or non-clichéd in any of this? Actually, one of the film’s few non-musical highlights is its voyeuristic look inside Pete and Maureen’s Indianapolis McMansion—a cathedral-like monument to what happens when Big Money meets Bad Taste. Demme could have done a major take-down of American materialism and the shallowness of middle-class dreams were he not so busy trying (and failing) to make a bourgeois movie. All that passes for a message in this film is a hackneyed “Gee, some American families are really wacky, but your mom’s still your mom, no matter what.”  

Here are your take-aways: Meryl Streep can rock. Rick Springfield can both rock and act. Kevin Kline must have needed a paycheck. Audra McDonald is a knockout. Jonathan Demme is lost.

Rob Weir


Adama Yalomba: Malian Riffs for Healing and Dancing

Waati Sera
Studio Mali Recordings
* * * * *

What makes one piece of music memorable and another instantly forgettable?  Very often it's the riff–those repeated phrases and notes that attach themselves to the temporal lobe and won't let go. Few artists understand this as well as Malian superstar Adama Yalomba, whose eleven-track Waati Sera is a textbook on how to lay down memorable riffs. That Yalomba does so with such dexterity and diversity is one of many marvels of his new release. Waati Sera also has its heart in the right place. In his native Bombara the words translate "The Time Has Come" and it's a plea for troubled Mali to put aside its racial, ethnic, and religious divisions and forgive and heal. To do his part, Yalomba sings in Bombara, Fulani, Bobo, Tamasheq, and French and his lyrical themes are in keeping with his upbeat belief that Malians can find their common humanity.

Yolomba's admirable politics and values notwithstanding, most Westerners will first be drawn to the aforementioned riffs. He takes them a step further than most musicians. On his musical pallette they are not just repetitions that seek to be catchy; they are the foundational colors upon which he paints his songs. "Mali Za" ("The People of Mali") uses a balafon-like series of notes—possibly* played on the n'dan, a lute/harp hybrid–that are like a rain that cleanses everything in their path. The rest of the instruments and Yalomba's honey-sweet vocals drip from the riff as if they are merely differently shaped drops from the downpour. By contrast, "Harkass" uses the kora to establish a hypnotic effect that's similar in spirit to an Indian raga, and "Mido Yiduma" ("I Love You") is full-bore boogie with electric guitar and n'goni laying down hard rock hooks. If that's not enough, 'I Gning Yele" ("Open Your Eyes") feels like acid rock merged with dry gourd percussion, and "Baba" combines crunchy power chords with bluesy riffs that could have come straight out of Chi-town. Whatever Yalomba doesn't do instrumentally, he covers with his glorious voice. Check out his tongue-twisting vocals on "Fesse Fesse" ("reflection") and "Plus Jamais" ("Never Again") in which he aims his words with machine-gun staccato like sweep and aim. In other songs—the title track being among them–he's evocative of Michael Jackson in his pop phrasing, his coolness, and his danceable vibes. What an album! It's, in turns, gritty, sweet as sugar, contemplative, and sweaty dance tempo. This is surely an early candidate for the best world beat album of 2016.

Videos from the new release are still being developed but here's a remarkable 10-minute jam from 2007. (Nothing on the new record is over 4:34.) And here's one song from his website.
Rob Weir

* There are no liner notes with the recording or online that provide further information on the instrumentation or guest artists.