- Written by Jason Crawford
- Published on 12 October 2010
Justin Townes Earle "Harlem River Blues" Bloodshot Records
Following in the footsteps of a famous parent seems especially difficult for musicians. Athletes can get away with it, and often eclipse their parents' achievements. Just ask Archie Manning or Ken Griffey. But Julian Lennon never had a chance. His most popular song, whatever it was called, sounded like direct imitation of John's work. Good luck improving on that. Maybe it's the weight of expectation or maybe it's just that he inherited his father's voice as well as his looks. (Good luck debating that.) Regardless of reasoning, it didn't measure up. The only thing I remember hearing was how he "sounds just like his dad." Then, there was Wilson Phillips. And how about Lisa Marie Pressley? At least Justin Townes Earle made it out alive. I suspect he's suffered some as I can't imagine that Steve Earle did a lot of parenting during his "heroine era" which eventually landed him in prison. In fact, a friend of mine saw Justin's photo on the cover of his latest, "Harlem River Blues," and said, "What happened to this guy?" He literally appears to have been rode hard and put up wet, and his voice often conveys that same quality, but that's where the comparisons end. I mean, unless you want to get into the more obvious ones. They both play acoustic guitars, for instance. But I'm not really into comparisons unless the similarities leave you with no choice. "Harlem River Blues" stands on its own. It's catchy as hell, and I've been walking around for days singing about drowning myself in muddy water as a result. It's a nice problem to have.
It's also nice to have Jason Isbell handling the electric guitar work for you. I, along with this site's esteemed Public Relations Director, saw JTE open for Isbell's band last year in San Francisco. Earle's set gave no hint as to what we'd find on "Harlem River Blues" though. He played straight up hillbilly music with one other guy on mandolin and harmonica. "Harlem River Blues" is a full band affair without the overt novelty of the mountain music aesthetic to get it over. This one relies on the strength of its songs, and the understated ability of the musicians playing them. It grows on you like moss until you feel like you're standing in the river too. The title track's juxtaposition of Isbell's electric work with the Gospel choir makes for a foot tappin' good time. The organ helps too. And that's just the beginning. There's rockabilly in here ("Move Over Mama" and "Ain't Waitin'"), along with the thrills inherent in finding an album constructed of real songs by an honest musician singing in his natural voice. (It's a sad commentary on the state of popular music that we should acknowledge a singer that actually sings.) The overall feeling of weariness is compounded by the lyrical content in songs like "One More Night In Brooklyn" and "Working For The MTA." A small horn section lends a rhythm and blues vibe to "Slippin' and Slidin'," and a world-weary one to "Christchurch Woman," which actually does remind me of Steve Earle circa "El Carazon." (I can't help it. I was aware of the relationship between the two artists going in. I may not have picked up on it otherwise, but it seems pretty obvious to me now. In a good way.) "Learning To Cry," on the other hand gives us our first real taste of traditional country which means that JTE touches on most of the styles that form the bedrock of American music outside of Jazz. Maybe he'll get that one on the next go 'round.
Nothing about the vinyl version of "Harlem River Blues" is going to cause you to turn backflips other than the content in the grooves themselves. The record doesn't look like much, although it does come with a download coupon which is cool. I could see this as Sunday driving music so it's nice to be able to take it with you without buying it twice. Bloodshot Records may not have the financial backing to make their vinyl releases really shine as the record is literally dulled by what appear to be flaws in the pressing. But the sound is clear and clean, right through the ending of the "Harlem River Blues Reprise." No pops or crackles once you clean the dust away which is left by the standard l.p. packaging of the day. I threw my copy in a high-quality inner sleeve to prevent paper scuffing right after the first listen. I'll be listening to "Harlem River Blues" for a long time and I'm glad mine is on vinyl. Maybe it'll garner enough attention for a fancy re-issue project one day by a company known for such things. MoFi, I am looking at you...
Mavis Staples "You Are Not Alone" Anti
I knew I was going to like "You Are Not Alone," by Mavis Staples immediately upon first listen. The swampy intro to album opener "Don't Knock" took me all the way back to the version I have from the early '60's with Pops Staples' tremolo guitar work on it. Not an imitation so much as an homage. Even slower and thicker than the original. Then, some guy came in on vocals for the first verse which I thought was a little odd since it is, after all, a Mavis Staples album. I'd never heard of a vocalist beginning the first song of a new album with another singer's contribution. Then, I read the fine print on the second record which was still in its sleeve. These are 45 r.p.m. discs. That has not been well publicized. The album, as one can imagine, sounds remarkably different and a whole lot better at the correct speed. Isn't that something?
I think folks have learned a thing or two from the recent successes of singers like Solomon Burke and Al Green. Real fans want to hear these artists do what they've always done best the way they've always done it. That last bit is key. I, for one, am completely burnt on hearing classic artists collaborating with younger (less talented) ones to make themselves seem more relevant. They're already relevant through the influence they've exerted on the younger artists. Al Green's last record ("Lay It Down") was long on collaborations, but the guests' contributions were blessedly short on impact. In fact, they weren't noticeable at all in some instances. I dare say Green would have been better off alone. I know Mavis Staples is despite what her latest title implies. "You Are Not Alone" was produced by Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, and does, in fact, feature some contributions from younger artists (including Tweedy), but not enough to warrant attaching their names to the song titles. Tweedy's acoustic guitar is there to support the work, not to help Mavis Staples sell records. She'll do that on her own if her label knows anything about marketing. She was well on her way to becoming a hit on the jam band circuit a few years back when I caught an outdoor show of hers with her trio of a backing band. They were obviously capable of playing with Hendrix-like power and did it in a couple of spots, but the draw will always be Mavis's voice. It was on that day, and it is on her latest. And she doesn't even cut loose on "Alone." Not once. Her sonorous pipes make this an understated affair throughout which somehow makes the sound stronger. There are Staple Singers tracks that predate their time on Stax so she's digging pretty deep in the well at this point. Tweedy wrote the title track which is the most immediately arresting if just for the novelty of hearing Mavis Staples sing the line "open up, this is a raid." John Fogerty and Randy Newman have songs on here that stand up straight alongside traditional gospel numbers, but the trick is in the details. If the band is the ocean, Staples' voice is the wave. And they blend together just as well. Everything seems scaled back, right down to the "choir." It's made up of maybe five voices instead of fifteen. The effect is massive. No one is going to regret familiarizing themselves with this record. The trick is getting it in front of the right audience. Popular radio is probably not an option as the songs don't fit the format. Satellite radio might be a different story and "You Are Not Alone" could be lighting it up right now on XM for all I know. But I can guarantee you that Mavis would absolutely kill at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco or at Bonnaroo in Tennessee. 'Tisn't the festival season though so it's going to take a different approach to get this one over. NPR would work well. Pretty much any arena involving intelligence or taste. "You Are Not Alone" is a safe bet there.
Anti Records did a fine job with the vinyl version of "You Are Not Alone." The pressings are clean, they're housed in a gatefold cover with players' credits and semi-detailed song information. The inner sleeves are pedestrian and will need to be replaced if you're going to keep this record in the condition it deserves to be kept in. A CD of the entire album is included so you can pester your friends into acknowledging its genius if they aren't willing or able to make it to your place for a proper listen. And that's really what's required on this album. The acoustic instruments come through so clearly while Staples' electric guitarist cuts through the choir with ease. And, we should note, this is an album made up mostly of songs with spiritual content. Again, Mavis didn't reinvent herself for this recording. She did work with some sensitive players and a producer that new just what was needed to bring her classic sound to a more modern framework. Thank goodness for that. And for Mavis. Go get this one now. It will be on everyone's top ten list at year's end. As long as they're willing to dig a little deeper in the well.
Dex Romweber Duo "You Are Not Alone" Anti
The Dexter Romweber Duo may be considered the present day Velvet Underground on a smaller scale. Not many folks know Romweber's name, comparatively speaking, but he's been a major influence on one of the most influential artists of the last decade so his music has a longer reach than most people realize. In the early '90's, Romweber's Flat Duo Jets were the precursor to Jack White's White Stripes. One guitarist/vocalist and a drummer. Later, Romweber would form the Dexter Romweber Duo with his sister Sara. For real this time: Dex and Sara are legit siblings unlike Jack and Meg. In fact, I was moved to purchase a Dex Romweber Duo 45 record last month while visiting White's Third Man Records in Nashville. That impressed me so that I sought out a full-length release from the Duo to explore more deeply. I came away with last year's "Ruins of Berlin." I'm not sure how representative it is of his other work, but it's representative of something cool, I know that much. The cover claims it was a limited release of 1000 which tells me the vinyl hasn't exactly flown off the shelves. Somehow, we've almost made it to 2011 and this one was still sitting on my independent retailer's shelf last week. My guess is there are still a few around if you know where to look. I'd recommend starting at bloodshotrecords.com which says they've just gotten some previously sold copies back from a distributor. Act fast. That's my advice.
"Ruins of Berlin" plays like a soundtrack to some weird Jim Jarmusch movie. It's comprised mostly of surf/rockabilly instrumental rave-ups ("Lookout"), crooner duets with Cat Power and Exene Cervenka ("Love Letters," and "Lonesome Train" respectively), and stripped down numbers with just the Duo. They all seem to fit together into some sort of carnival themed whole, but I can't quite place the action. It's suggested more in tone than in content, and there may actually be some German musical influence that isn't so easy for me to identify. I get the same vibe from some of Tom Waits' work. Perhaps we can enjoy "Ruins" as a cabaret with Romweber as the master of ceremonies. He could also be a narrator that slips in and out of character as needed. It's easy to envision seated parties with tables full of beverage spending a dark and smokey evening in a seedy venue laughing and drinking and leaning forward to whisper in each others' ears about what might happen when they get home. The whole affair has a looseness about it that suggests minimal overdubs, and it wouldn't surprise me to learn that Romweber tracked his vocals as he played guitar. I don't know that for a fact, but it's not hard to imagine it while listening to a song like "Still Around." He strums his electric (hollow body?) without effects or distortion in such a simple way that it almost sounds foreign. I'd think that most folks would have chosen an acoustic instrument in such a stripped musical landscape. Apparently, there aren't a lot of Dex Romwebers running around out there. That is, as they say, what makes him so special...
I'd recommend "Ruins of Berlin" to anyone open-minded enough to risk the momentary discomfort that comes with hearing a sound so honest and bare that it almost seems like an exposed nerve. The vinyl presentation is cool enough, and it comes with a download coupon so you might as well go for it. The pressing isn't anything special, but it spins and it plays, and it's so much easier to imagine Jack and Dex enjoying this one on vinyl over a couple of beers rather than listening to a... compact laser disc. Something about that just wouldn't add up. Hopefully, Romweber will release a long player from his sessions at Third Man. Until then, I'm happy with "Ruins of Berlin," and I'm looking forward to collecting his prior works retroactively. I intend to start with the self-titled "Flat Duo Jets" record from 1990. If anyone has a line on one, please let me know.
The Allman Brothers "Idlewild South" Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs
Was there ever a band less likely to outlive its infancy than the Allman Brothers Band? Seriously. Drinking, drugging, and... motorcycles? The death of two founding members, including their inspirational leader and musical catalyst, Duane Allman, in the early '70's would have most bands in, but they rose from the ashes of multiple disasters to enjoy their most commercially successful era ever. Then, the bullets began to fly and the bottom fell out leading to an era of mullet wearing stand-ins and watered down studio recordings. The band limped to dissolution before reforming in the late '80's, then hitting their stride in full swing for the first decade of the new millennium with guitarists Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes carrying the torch for their long deceased leader. If you're a Dickey Betts fan, that means the Brothers have employed, at one time or another, four of the greatest guitarists in rock history, often two at a time. I've seen the current incarnation, and can say without doubt that it has to be the most forceful lineup in the band's history that didn't include Duane. I remember seeing "Eat A Peach" in my dad's record collection as a kid and the artwork alone left me wondering exactly what those grooves contained. Fast forward a few years, and the Allmans found their way to me via my interest in Widespread Panic. I went back to explore "Eat A Peach," and the game was afoot. And in a way that has lasted. They're clearly one of the finest bands in rock history, with greater musicianship than the Stones, and more emotion and guts than any of the other Southern bands they got lumped in with by way of marketing or concert pairings. Put simply, they'll mop the stage with the blood of their openers and leave a smoking crater for any other headliner to perform on. I seized the recent MoFi release of their second studio effort from 1970 as a chance to get reacquainted. "Idlewild South" is a work of genius. Long hair wearing, freak flag flying genius all around.
All of the seven songs on "Idlewild" are instantly recognizable, to greater or lesser degrees, whether you are a rock music historian or not. "Revival," "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed," and "Midnight Rambler" are the more obvious nuggets, but you can't discount a song like "Don't Keep Me Wondering" just because classic rock radio missed it. The Brothers approached rock and roll with the open-mindedness of the finest jazz messengers, even if that's evidenced more so on "At Fillmore East," for instance. You get a little taste on "Elizabeth Reed" which makes up half of my favorite Betts compositions. (The other is "Revival" so I count "Idlewild" as a banner offering for ol' Dickey.) Most of the remaining six tracks hover right around or below the four minute mark which makes "Idlewild" a fine starting place for the casual Allmans fan, especially one with a slight aversion to extended jams. (There can be no serious Allmans fan with an aversion to extended musical exploration. You can't really love the ocean and hate salt water, right?) This is as lean as the Brothers get. No fat in this dish, and no leftovers. Perfect.
Anyone familiar with Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs' offerings will know exactly what to expect when that outfit tackles an Allman Brothers release. Gregg's organ and Jaimoe's percussion impact the sound every bit as much as Duane and Dickey's more celebrated guitar work. Gregg's voice is, of course, other worldly especially considering that he was in his early twenties. The clarity of the instrumentation and the detail are phenomenal on the MoFi version as you almost feel like you can hear the organ pedals and the picks hit the strings. If you have a passing interest in what is considered "Southern Rock," you should pick up this version of "Idlewild South." If you are an avowed enthusiast and you don't already own a copy, you should run to your most trusted independent record store like your hair is on fire and get this one now before the limited release runs out.
Janelle Monae "The Archandroid" Wondaland/Bad Boy Entertainment
I thought I was on to something obscure when I picked up Janelle Monae's latest installment in her "Chase Suite." I wasn't. It's called "The Archandroid" and continues the storyline from her debut E.P. It's also everywhere. A quick online search shows that she's performed on "Dancing With The Stars," and all of the late night talk shows too. I think her music was used on an episode of "American Idol," for crying out loud. To make matters worse, she was nominated for a Grammy. But let's not hold any of this against her yet. She seems to have come by fame honestly through networking and hard work. She's been steadily on the rise for the last few years. E.F. Hutton would be proud. She's earned it. First, through her association with Outkast and one of their projects. Then, on her own as a signee to Puff Daddy's label. Or whatever that guy calls himself now. I haven't heard the first note of music he's made in some years so I'm not sure if he informs Monae's music or if he's strictly on the money side, but Outkast, specifically Big Boi, certainly seems to have made an artistic impression on her. Their busy beats and layers upon layers of dense, electronic noise work well with her delivery and her themes. I get the impression that Monae could do most anything she wants as an artist. (I haven't seen her paint.) She has the look, the moves, the songwriting chops, and the voice. Come to think of it: Who better than her to be on "Dancing With The Stars?" Or whatever.
Clearly, Miss Monae has an affinity for aliens and robots so we'll safely assume that she's a science fiction fan too. If you're like me and you don't like to assume, then it might set you more at ease to know her first record was named after one of the most influential movies of all time, "Metropolis." And that movie happens to be of the science fiction variety. And the album artwork for "The Archandroid" supports this assumption as it's an obvious allusion to the movie's poster art. I think we're on safe ground. And it seems like a fun platform to work off of. Science fiction can make use of alternate realities to comment on our world's state of current affairs without being as didactic as a straight critique. Monae avails herself of this opportunity on songs like "Cold War" and others. That's not to say this is a serious affair. It's playful and fun to a fault. A couple of Georgia's finest make the requisite hip-hop cameos in the forms of Big Boi and Of Montreal. "The Archandroid" is a multi-layered game with plenty of depth, and I expect it to reveal itself to me by and by. And I'm going to give it every opportunity to do so as I'll be giving this one a lot of attention in the coming months. It just feels special, and I don't think that I've had time to let its greatness seep in. Yet. And we still have at least one more installment in the "Suite" to anticipate...
I'd say that if you're even a casual fan of modern hip-hop, electronic, soul-funk music, you should pick up a copy of "The Archandroid." You simply don't see many musicians taking this type of artistic risk now. Monae's message is lifeward even if it's not always easily discernible. I think her vision will become clearer to her audience as her exposure grows. And it's growing. Even I know that, and I willfully cultivate current pop cultural ignorance as a life rule. And the vinyl package is impressive. Two records in a gatefold with artwork that seems larger than the surfaces containing it. The pressings are clean too albeit on lightweight vinyl. It does not come with a digital copy or any means of obtaining one. That's a shame because this is the type of movement that the kids will really get behind, and portability is a big part of musical dissemination. I'd hate to think that a record like "The Archandroid" could languish on a store shelf because a record label doesn't have the foresight to include a download code for its fans. Then again, maybe Puff Daddy is so enamored of it that he thinks folks will buy it twice. Maybe he's right. He seems to have made some wise business decisions in the past. I'm only buying it once though, and I'm happy with the version I have. You will be too. Especially if you're into robots. And aliens.