Thursday, January 17, 2013

TERRELL'S TUNEUP: The Ones That Got Away (Almost)

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican 
Jan. 18, 2013

Here’s a stack of albums released during 2012 that deserve notice — though I didn’t get around to reviewing them last year. Call these the ones that got away — almost. Some are several months old, but they aren’t quite ready for the proverbial dustbin of history.

* We Walk the Line: A Celebration of the Music of Johnny Cash. On April 20 last year, a small star-studded army of country and “Americana” (I still hate that label) musicians descended upon Austin to pay tribute to the late Man in Black in honor of his 80th year. This package includes a concert DVD and a CD of most of the performances. As is typical for all-star flusterclucks, this show had a few misfires. There’s an overly MOR take of “It Ain’t Me, Babe” by Shelby Lynne and Pat Monahan and a too-fragile “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” by Amy Lee. And while Johnny Cash could make Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” his own, Lucinda Williams falls way short.

Fortunately, there are many delights here. When I first read the credits I wondered about the wisdom of having Seattle singer Brandi Carlile do “Folsom Prison Blues,” but just a few seconds into it, it became obvious that she nailed it. The Carolina Chocolate Drops turn “Jackson” into a fiddle-and-banjo romp. Rhett Miller rocks “The Wreck of the Old 97,” the song that gave his band its name. Shooter Jennings, son of Waylon, sings with Amy Nelson, daughter of Willie, for a version of “Cocaine Blues” that is worthy of Cash’s own interpretation. Kris Kristofferson sounds like the tough old outlaw he is on “Big River.”

I was never a big fan of Brooks & Dunn, but Ronnie Dunn does a fine version of “Ring of Fire” here, backed by “friends from New Mexico,” a couple of trumpeters from Santa Fe’s favorite all-female mariachi band Mariachi Buenaventura. (The group backed Dunn a couple of years ago on his video for “How Far to Waco.”)

* World Famous Headliners. Former NRBQ guitarist and part-time Santa Fe resident Big Al Anderson has got himself a new band. Nobody who has followed Big Al’s work with NRBQ (dang, it’s been nearly 20 years since he left them) or his solo work will be surprised that the Headliners’ sound is nice and rootsy, with tasteful pop sensibilities. There are three guitarists in this outfit — Anderson, Shawn Camp (who co-wrote all the songs with Anderson), and Pat McLaughlin. All three sing. The album is loaded with good-time songs. One of my favorites is “Jukin’” — a funky, bluesy, countryish tune. The Headliners get shamelessly pretty on the soulful “Take Me Back,” which would have fit in on Anderson’s smoky After Hours album, while “I Bleed” sounds like a tune from Pet Sounds remade by Southerners. Anderson and company aren’t afraid to get just a little bit goofy on tunes like “Ding Dong” and “Party ‘Til the Money’s Gone.”

* Blues Funeral by Mark Lanegan. Even before the Screaming Trees broke up around the turn of the century, Ellensburg, Washington, singer Mark Lanegan had established himself as a solo artist known for moody, often morose songs. The ache in Lanegan’s weary voice is almost tangible. At his best, he can make Leonard Cohen sound like Bobby Sherman. Listening to a Lanegan album is like walking into a dark house at 4 a.m. that you think is empty — until you see the ominous glow of a cigarette on the other side of the room. “The Grave Digger’s Song” and “St. Louis Elegy” (featuring background vocals from his Gutter Twins colleague Greg Dulli) show Lanegan doing what he does best. But undoubtedly the biggest surprise on Blues Funeral is “Ode to Sad Disco.” With the loud relentless electronic drums and dark textured synths, Lanegan makes it sound like — you guessed it — a sad disco.

* The Backward Path by Dan Melchior. Melchior is an Englishman who was a major player in the Medway garage/punk scene that produced Billy Childish and Holly Golightly. (He’s worked with both of those artists.) In recent years he’s played with a hard-punching, blues-influenced band called Das Menace. There’s not much Menace in this low-key album. On most songs here he sounds more like Robyn Hitchcock than Childish. The best song is “I Have Known the Emptiness,” which features an acoustic guitar over a dreamlike electronic backdrop. “I have known the emptiness and I tried to love it/But it nearly bored me half to death,” Melchior deadpans. As much as I like it, I think it would sound even better with some Das Menace crunch and fire.

* Tall Tales by The Perch Creek Family Jug Band. Here are some Australian family values for you. This group isn’t lying by calling itself a family band. All but one member has the surname Hodgkins. Some of the band’s songs don’t really sound like jug-band music — sometimes they sound more like they were made by a bluegrass group or lightweight blues band. And sometimes the band reminds me of one of those goofy British skiffle groups of the 1950s with its earnest covers of American folk, jazz, blues, and country songs — everything from “Oh, Susanna” to “Minnie the Moocher.” But Perch Creek does have a jug player, not to mention “Australia’s top one-legged saw player.” That’s Christi Hodgkins, who is the subject of the original song “How Did the Young Man Lose His Leg.”

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