Album review: Tracie Bennett Sings Judy: Songs from the Broadway Production of End of the Rainbow

The theatrical subgenre of celebrity impersonation has always been an odd duck. It’s easy to do badly, damned difficult to do well, and gets the impersonator little respect in any case. In fact, duplicating a performer’s on-stage persona in a way that will allow audience members to suspend disbelief and react as they would to the original is quite a challenge, especially when the performer in question is well represented on audio and film/video.

Judging from the praise she has received for her performance as the late Judy Garland in Peter Quilter’s play with music “The End of the Rainbow”, Tracie Bennett has risen to the challenge. In the New York Times, Ben Brantley praised her “electrifying interpretation”. The Huffington Post’s Mark Kennedy) said she was “so stunning that she manages to raise the dead”. Others have had similar praise for her performance even when they have found the play itself a bit monochromatic.

I haven’t seen the show, but judging from the original cast recording now available on Masterworks Broadway, Ms. Bennett has eerily captured not just the sound of Garland, but more specifically the sound of Garland towards the end of her career, when drugs and drink were taking their toll. To quote the Times again:

“In her terrifyingly manic, Ritalin-fueled “Come Rain or Come Shine” you hear not only the music but the rage that produces it.”

You don’t really hear that in Garland’s recordings from the period, in my view. But then, this isn’t an attempt to duplicate those recordings. It’s a look (albeit fictionalized) at the pain they masked. And on that level I think it works perhaps a little too well. At times, it’s difficult to listen to—not because Ms. Bennett has done her work poorly but rather because she has done it so very well.

The album consists of songs from the Broadway production of the play, fleshed out with new recordings by Bennett and members of the on-stage band of Garland classics not in the stage version, including “Zing Went The Strings Of My Heart”, “San Francisco” and “When The Sun Comes Out” (full track list below). If you’re a Garland fan you’ll probably want to add this to your collection; ditto if you have seen and enjoyed the show. For the rest of us it’s an interesting curiosity. The CD is available from the usual music outlets. You can also purchase the MP3 version at iTunes.

Track list:

  1. I Can’t Give You Anything But Love/Just In Time (Dorothy Fields, Jule Styne, Betty Comden, Adolph Green, Jimmy McHugh)
  2. I Could Go On Singing (E.Y. Harburg, Harold Arlen)
  3. Smile (Charles Chaplin, John Turner, Geoffrey Parsons)
  4. Medley: The Bells Are Ringing For Me And My Gal/You Made Me Love You/The Trolley Song (Joseph McCarthy, Ray Goetz, Hugh Martin, George Meyer, Edgar Leslie, Ralph Blane, James V. Monaco)
  5. Zing Went The Strings Of My Heart (James Hanley)
  6. The Man That Got Away (Ira Gershwin, Harold Arlen)
  7. Come Rain Or Come Shine (Johnny Mercer, Harold Arlen)
  8. When You’re Smiling (Mark Fisher, Joe Goodwin, Larry Shay)
  9. Somewhere Over The Rainbow (E.Y. Harburg, Harold Arlen)
  10. San Francisco (Walter Jurmann, Gus Kahn, Bronislaw Kaper)
  11. When The Sun Comes Out (Ted Koehler, Harold Arlen)
  12. Get Happy/By Myself (Ted Koehler, Arthur Schwartz, Howard Dietz, Harold Arlen)

Album review: Guided by Voices ramble, stumble and rock through ‘Let’s Go Eat the Factory’

Guided by Voices
“Let’s Go Eat the Factory”

There’s a fair amount of context to the new Guided by Voices record, “Let’s Go Eat the Factory,” so let’s recap.

Frontman Robert Pollard pulled the plug on Guided by Voices in 2004, ending a 21-year run that included dozens of releases and a staggering number of bandmates come and gone. In 2010 he reunited the band’s “classic lineup” for a one-off gig in Las Vegas. This was the same group of musicians that made up GBV from 1992 to 1996 when the band produced it’s best and most influential records: “Propeller,” “Bee Thousand,” “Alien Lanes” and “Under the Bushes Under the Stars.”

That single show led to a basketful of gigs throughout 2011, including a lengthy tour and spots at the top end of major festival bills. While a reunion of the classic lineup had once seemed incredibly unlikely, another recording from that troupe had always seemed an even longer shot. Alas, that is what we have here.

“Let’s Go Eat the Factory” is not a classic GBV record, though it is certainly a fine collection of music. Hallmarks of the band’s early standout releases are present, to be sure. The first eight tracks (“Laundry and Lasers” through “Who Invented the Sun”) could have been lifted from the middle of any of those records. They carry the same subversive, addictive hooks and fast-paced, shape-shifting melodies.

“Doughnut for a Snowman” and “Spiderfighter” form the nexus of this first third of the record. The former begins seemingly mid-song with the last few words of a verse and a bleating recorder solo, and then proceeds to wash a whimsical childhood portrait across a cozy acoustic arrangement. The brilliantly bipolar “Spiderfighter” gracefully transitions from a grating burner that’s all kerosene and fireworks to a heart-stopping piano ballad, the record’s finest moment.

“Let’s Go Eat the Factory” has moments like these throughout, but it still finds Pollard veering into the ditch on occasion. Oddball cuts like “The Big Hat and Toy Show,” “Go Rolling Home” and “My Eurpoa” are cul-de-sacs, unavoidable and undesirable detours. Similar pieces on the aforementioned GBV records worked because beneath the discordant sludge they held something at least intriguing enough to encourage another listen, which often led to another, and then another. And at worst, they rarely killed the momentum as they do here.

The most noteworthy tracks on “Let’s Go Eat the Factory” are those penned by Pollard’s songwriting foil, Tobin Sprout, the guitarist whose departure from the group in 1996 signaled the end of the classic era. Mostly saccharine and soothing, Sprout’s compositions are the egg and breadcrumbs in the meatloaf, keeping it all together. In addition to “Spiderfighter,” he also offers up the stellar “Who Invented the Sun” and “Waves,” a mildly disorienting spiral of sunburned guitars that is easily the album’s best cut.

Guided by Voices records are very much bric-a-brac. On “Let’s Go Eat the Factory” these trinkets are sometimes brilliant, occasionally forgettable, but most often enjoyable. The record can’t stand next to “Alien Lanes” or “Bee Thousand,” but it’s a nice addition to the band’s discography nonetheless.

Guided By Voices – Doughnut For A Snowman by FIRE RECORDS

Album review: Ryan Adams returns to melancholy form on ‘Ashes & Fire’

Ryan Adams
“Ashes & Fire”
PAX-AM / Capitol
The first track on the new Ryan Adams record opens quietly as Adams sings, “Last time I was here it was raining/It ain’t raining anymore.”

And so, with a sparse acoustic guitar part and that simple lyric Ryan Adams marks his return to music after a hiatus of nearly three years. “Ashes & Fire” is his first record since 2007′s “Easy Tiger” and since he disbanded the Cardinals in 2009. (Last year’s “III/IV” was actually recorded during the “Easy Tiger” sessions, and “Orion,” a heavy metal record, was released on vinyl by his label, PAX-AM, and available only through the label’s website.)
Ryan Adams is one of the most prolific songwriters working today, but he took a break from music in order to deal with personal issues. Those issues included some trouble with drugs and alcohol, and a bout with Meniere’s disease, an inner ear disorder that affects balance and can result in hearing loss. Adams did, in fact, lose some hearing in one ear, and recently told Rolling Stone that he had permanently lost some of the middle tones in one ear.

Now, married and with his personal life presumably in order, Ryan Adams has returned to music. Perhaps a little of that Disney magic has rubbed off on him (his wife, Mandy Moore, was the star of “Tangled”), because “Ashes & Fire” is one of his best records to date.

Adams has been a critic’s darling and a critic’s nemesis. He can be a brilliant songwriter and performer. But he can also be temperamental, and has produced some uneven records. “Ashes & Fire” is simply a solid singer-songwriter record. The emphasis here is on the songs and the vocals, less on the musicianship that marked his time with the Cardinals. That’s certainly not to say the music fades into the background. Bringing in musicians like Norah Jones on piano, and Benmont Tench (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers) on keyboards and the occasional Hammond B3, the band serves to underscore the lyrical content and the vocal performances, rather than taking the forefront. 
Not surprisingly, Adams frequently mines the territory of heartbreak and loss, as on songs like “Lucky Now” when he sings: “The lights will draw you in/But the dark will bring you down/And the night will break your heart/But only/If you’re lucky, now.” Of course, this is familiar territory for Adams. But even at his most earnest, as on “Kindness” when he asks a lover, “Do you believe in love?” the lyrics are never clichéd or overly sweet.
The songs here are acoustic and often subdued. There are no rockers, with the title track being among the most upbeat of the songs on the record. And that’s okay. “Ashes & Fire,” like most Ryan Adams records, has a feel that is all its own. While a feeling of melancholy persists throughout, the record is never maudlin, even when wearing its heart on its sleeve.

And it even ends on a hopeful note, closing, almost as quietly as it began, with the wistful “I Love You But I Don’t Know What to Say.”

Ashes and Fire by ryanadams

Album review: JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound ‘Want More’ and get more

JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound
“Want More”

The Chicago-based quartet is back in a big way with the release of its second album, “Want More.”

Members of JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound have skills beyond their years, but they are very much in tune with the present. They give the soul renaissance a modern edge with cross-genre instrumentation and contemporary lyrics.

For example, their new album features an upbeat adaptation of Wilco’s “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart,” which is more than just a cover — it’s a triumph of imagination.

The strange humor of “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” appeals to JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound as the lyrics sort of fit in among the original songs. In “Don’t Lock the Door,” Brooks sings, “You’ve got a hold on my soul; I hope that was your goal.” And in “Everything Will Be Fine,” he repeats the line “It’s not relevant if you’re not speaking.”

While the songwriting is memorable on its own, Brooks is also a dynamic vocalist who unleashes a crisp falsetto (that shines the most in “I Got High”) or lowers the register with a gravely timbre as in “Sister Ray Charles.” The group as a whole makes “Sister Ray Charles” into a highlight of the album; the song begins with a gritty electric organ and works its way up to a full, massive sound that effectively uses the potential of the studio, not to mention Brooks’ impressive vocal range.

Fans of the group should be familiar with songs from “Want More” because many of them have been featured in the group’s live sets along with songs from their debut, “Beat Of Our Own Drum,” which was released in 2009. That album contained the single, “Baltimore is the New Brooklyn,” a track that utilized the same brand of wry songwriting mentioned earlier.

Like their previous release, “Want More” is an outstanding package that captures the energy and excitement of JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound. It showcases a vision of modern soul while pacing the album with a couple of slower, but equally intensified songs that include “Missing Things.” All in all, it makes for a great go-to CD to keep in the car, though the album probably sounds best on vinyl with a good pair of headphones and a martini.

For the fullest experience, however, you must see this band live. The group recently returned from a month-long European tour and wasted no time hitting the road at home. KDHX welcomes the band to Off Broadway on December 10, 2011, so check out the new album, get tickets to the show and see what all the fuss is about.

Album review: Merle Haggard still masterful on ‘Working in Tennessee’

Merle Haggard
“Working in Tennessee”

After a battle with lung cancer, a lot of singers might be tempted to retire, or to at least take it easy. Not Merle Haggard. 
Despite having lost part of a lung to cancer, the Country Music Hall of Famer sings like he’s just getting started. Haggard has just released “Working in Tennessee,” his latest record and his second for Vanguard Records. Recorded in his own California studio with the backing of his longtime band, the Strangers, Hag turns in one of the finest recordings of his storied career. 
Born in California in 1937 to working-class parents, Haggard was a rebellious youth, spending much of his time in and out of juvenile detention centers. As a young man, he eventually found himself in prison after a botched burglary attempt. Perhaps that was the wake up call he needed, however, because after his release in the early ’60s, he began to remake himself as a performer. Drawn to country music from an early age, Haggard began singing in bars for a little bit of cash and all the beer he could drink. He soon attracted the attention of established country artists and had his first hit with “Sing a Sad Song” in 1964. He went on to record 38 number one songs and has weathered the ups and downs of a long career in county music. 
“Working in Tennessee” opens with the title track, a swinging dig at Music City, and all the people dreaming of being the next big star: “Went down lookin’ to be a star/Wound up hockin’ my old guitar/Look at me, working in Tennessee.” Merle is obviously having a good time, letting his band do the picking while he does the grinning. He takes another shot at Nashville later on with “Too Much Boogie Woogie,” a song that derides the current state of country music. In it, he complains about today’s generic country music stars, the “people pickin’ on the Opry” that he’s never even heard of. The song is also a bit of a farewell to an era, an homage to the generation of singers and musicians of which Haggard himself is a part.
Never one to keep his opinions to himself, Haggard’s songwriting on this record is no exception. His views are right out front on several songs. Sometimes it works well, as on “What I Hate,” a litany of complaints that range from shifty politicians to the enduring legacy of Southern racism. Such a song might simply come off as heavy handed for another, lesser, singer. But in Merle’s hands it’s hard not to find oneself nodding in agreement. That’s not to say that the approach always works, however. On “Under the Bridge,” the story of a hard working man who finds himself unemployed and homeless, the well-intentioned sentiment becomes a bit cloying.
It’s not all politics and curmudgeonly complaint, however. Long a champion of the working man, Haggard and his band lay down a fine country groove on “Truck Driver’s Blues” and on a wonderful reworked version of his classic “Working Man Blues.”  The latter features guitar and vocals by Willie Nelson and vocals by son, Ben Haggard. In fact, much of this record is a family affair. In addition to son Ben, daughter Jenessa shares a co-writing credit on “Sometimes I Dream,” a simply beautiful new song that has the feel of a forlorn country classic. Haggard is so comfortable inside that song that it reminded me of everything I’ve always loved about his singing. (As if I needed a reminder.) Wife Theresa is here as well, sharing co-writing credits and singing too, most notably on the Carter-Cash standard, “Jackson.”

At the age of 74, with a string of hits, his family and a solid band behind him, Merle Haggard sings like a man who has nothing to prove, but who still has a hell of a lot left to say.

Merle Haggard – Working In Tennessee by Vanguard Records

Album review: Gringo Star takes two steps forward, one step back on ‘Count Yer Lucky Stars’

Gringo Star
“Count Yer Lucky Stars”
Gigantic Music

Young bands have latched on to retro rock with such increasing eagerness that it’s only a matter of time before some rock critic coins a hip, catchy term that will blur all nuance with a stroke of the pen (Fuzzcore? Modwave?).

A prominent subgroup of these bands — which includes Those Darlins, Times New Viking, Wavves and Harlem, among others — has taken to reupholstering garage textures with varying degrees of originality and success.

Atlanta’s Gringo Star is part of what may be the largest regional scene fostering this trend, sharing it with mainstays the Black Lips as well as burgeoning talents like Turf War and the Booze. On their second release, “Count Yer Lucky Stars,” the quartet makes strong arguments both for and against the viability of their approach.

At the outset, “Count Yer Lucky Stars” shakes and stomps with eerie, monstrous hooks, adjectives which should be taken quite literally. In my imagination, the video for lead single and opening track, “Shadows,” is a haunted house party. Hipsters rock out with Frankenstein, Dracula, a mummy and Drunk Hulk, each with a cheap tallboy in hand. The riffs, often ridiculously simple, weave and lurch in half time with dark and syrupy surprises around each corner.

Four of the first five album tracks carry a similar aesthetic. (The slacker romp “Beatnik Angel Georgie” is the only exception.) They’re cocktails of garage swagger and minor key raucousness: One part the Sonics, one part the Cramps, shake and serve over ice. On these cuts the band steers straight where others swerve unnecessarily. They make no ineffectual gestures toward lo-fi production, no effort to stretch the brief tunes longer than is needed. Even handclaps and banal lyrics can’t sink them. You find yourself with the urge to clap along while the singer delivers his lines with a deftness that makes the words mere shapes, colored by his desperation.

But somewhere along the line this approach fails. Too often the elementary melodies are laid painfully bare, usually because guitars echo each other too closely while drums do little more than toe the line. At other moments, overwhelming predictability fails to direct attention away from cringe-worthy cut and paste lyrics, and the entire house made of garage popsicle sticks crumbles. The second half of the record would be entirely forgettable were it not for the lovely and wistful southern shuffle “Light in the Sky.”

There is no fault in reconstituting the primeval paradigms of rock. Many bands, including Gringo Star, are capable of doing it exceptionally well. But when we know how the story ends the plot has to be all the more interesting. Though their approach is most often to hew close to their influences, Gringo Star is at its best when it looks back with a wink and a nod.

Gringo Star – Shadow (Count Yer Lucky Stars) by Gigantic Music

Album review: A new Bearfoot tells an old ‘American Story’

“American Story”

Bearfoot has gone through changes along the way, though the lineup on its latest release is the greatest departure from the original set.

Famously forming at a music camp in Alaska, the band really came into the public consciousness just prior to the release of the band’s last album, “Doors and Windows.” Seeing them live at that time was infectious — all smiles, this seemed like a group of friends out on a lark and having a great time. I saw them at Merlefest in 2009, and during their set they said they came up with a song, literally, while driving to North Carolina from Alaska and wanted to try it out.

The song was “Good in the Kitchen” and it sparkled, the band all the while looking like kids who had just discovered a new favorite toy. They seemed to be having as much fun as the audience, perhaps a bit genuinely surprised at all the attention they were getting.

And they were also making fantastic music together. Their visitation to the Carter standard “Single Girl” was breathtaking, with an arrangement that allowed all of the heartbreak and regret of the song to come forward. I loved it, lots of people loved it. Odessa Jorgensen’s vocals were layered and complex; the twin fiddle work was brilliantly tight and Mike Mickelson’s guitar work inspired.

But things change, and with success come other pressures. Spending so much time in a van so far from home can’t be easy, at least not all the time. And whether it was those pressures, or others, the changes to the band since the last release to this have been profound. “American Story” is the debut of the new set, and in the promo material surrounding the release, the members can’t keep from calling it the “new” Bearfoot. The only members that remain are Angela Oudean, a wonderful fiddle player and harmony vocalist, and Jason Norris on mandolin. Both great musicians in their own right, but neither has fronted the band, and arguably neither was responsible for its emotional core. That remains true in the new line up as well. That Oudean and Norris both appear in the background of the promo photos on the band website is, well, appropriate.

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Looking back at Stevie Wonder’s ‘Innervisions’

“First of all,” said Paul Simon the night he was handed the Grammy Award for Album of the Year in 1976, “I’d like to thank Stevie Wonder for not releasing an album this year.”

That’s the way it was back in the 1970s. Stevie Wonder owned the Grammys, winning Album of the Year in 1974, 1975, and 1977. Nowadays, the Grammys seem to be randomly distributed among indie (Arcade Fire), country (Taylor Swift), Americana (Robert Plant and Alison Krauss) and jazz tributes to ’70s icons (Herbie Hancock’s Joni Mitchell record). Stevie Wonder, however, won his Grammys at a time when pretty much everybody loved him. He sold millions of records, the critics raved and his peers respected him immensely.

The first album for which Wonder was given the Grammy was “Innervisions.” It’s nine perfect songs about the imperfections of mankind. Stevie Wonder is sometimes mocked as having a pie-in-the-sky spirituality and a simplified “can’t-we-all-just-get-along” philosophy. But as cloying as “Ebony and Ivory” would be later in his career, the music he made in his phenomenal run back in the ’70s was never one-sided.

He sang of hope, yes, but that hope required a clear acknowledgement of evil, injustice and danger. He sang of belief in aid from outside, of a God that will take you to highest ground and of the way a lover can be there for you so you don’t have to worry about a thing, but he was also very clear that all change came from inside, and that you were ultimately responsible for your life.

Stevie Wonder was certainly responsible for his own music. Yes, he hired musicians to play parts — to spectacularly beautiful effect in particular by acoustic guitarist Dean Parks and electric guitarist David “T” Walker on “Visions” — but the vast majority of sounds heard on “Innervisions” were created entirely by Wonder himself.

His acoustic and electric pianos, Moog synthesizer and Moog bass, drums, lead and backing vocals are intricately layered on top of and across each other. You can hear him borrowing from jazz, blues, gospel, soul and funk. You can hear him taking out of thin air the ingredients necessary to create what has since become so intricately a part of our collective experience. “Living in the City,” “Higher Ground,” “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” — these are songs which dominate the skyline of pop music history still, 38 years after their creation.

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