Friday, August 27, 2021

Archive Review: Justin Townes Earle's The Good Life (2008)

Justin Townes Earle's The Good Life
When you’re the son of a bona fide Americana music legend, and named after one of greatest songwriters of the genre (Townes Van Zandt), expectations are high. With his full-length debut, The Good Life, Justin Townes Earle delivers everything expected of him in spades. Not content to merely mimic his dad’s work, the younger Earle takes his impressive songwriting skills in a number of diverse directions. Whereas his pappy’s music tends to draw more from both rock and folk worlds, the younger Earle instead goes in the other direction, pulling the best from the Tennessee and Texas hillbilly traditions.

Justin Townes Earle’s The Good Life

Growing up in a musical household, Earle had the opportunity to soak in all sorts of influences, and it shows in his work. An eerily-mature songwriter that is skilled beyond his years, Earle easily weaves together story-songs in his dad’s image, but with his own voice and a widely differing soundtrack. The title track from The Good Life is a delicious ‘60s-styled country throwback that sounds like a classic Faron Young tune, while the heartbreaking “Who Am I To Say” is reminiscent of namesake Van Zandt’s stark folk poetry.

Other songs on The Good Life showcase Earle’s mastery of a diverse range of country styles. “Lone Pine Hill” is a haunting Western dirge and “What Do You Do When You’re Lonesome” is a weepy Texas dancehall ballad. “South Georgia Sugar Babe” is a bluesy, Southern rock/R&B hybrid with gumbo-funk rhythms while “Lonesome And You,” with its mournful steel guitar and slow shuffle, is the sort of honky-tonk country that Ernest Tubb could crank out in his sleep. “Turn Out My Lights” is a delicate, finely-crafted folk ballad…and about as close as Justin gets to sounding like his famous father. 

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

The vocals on The Good Life are warm, certain and soulful throughout, and producer R.S. “Bobby” Field’s deft hand and extensive roots-music knowledge allowed him to bring out the best in Earle, perfectly capturing the artist’s eclectic sound. With boundless ambition and loads of talent, Earle easily ties together strains of roots-rock, folk-blues, Tex-Mex, Western Swing, and traditional country in the creation of an amazing, remarkable debut album. (Bloodshot Records, released February 1, 2008)

Review originally published by the Trademark of Quality (TMQ) blog...

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Archive Review: Michelle Malone’s Homegrown (1999)

Michelle Malone’s Homegrown
Atlanta’s Michelle Malone is proof that you can’t keep a real artist down. After an ill-promoted, though energetically rocking Lenny Kaye-produced major label debut in 1990, Malone has spent the rest of the decade wandering from one indie imprint to another. During this time, while fellow female folk rockers like Jewel, Meredith Brooks, or Sheryl Crow have experienced varying degrees of career success, Malone has remained an undiscovered gem.

Homegrown, Malone’s follow-up to 1997’s wonderful Beneath the Devil Moon, is unlikely to play beyond Malone’s faithful cult following, regardless of how good it is. No longer a diamond in the rough, years of playing and recording have polished Malone’s former barroom growl into a multi-faceted and quite enchanting singing voice. Malone can still rock out – witness the pop hooks on the album-opening “Avalon” or the riff-driven “Brand New Dream.” Malone has developed range and depth as a singer, though, illustrated by the country-sweet “Keeping Score” or the folkish tale “Cheap One Star Hotel.”

Michelle Malone’s Homegrown

As a songwriter, Malone has always been at her best with semi-autobiographical confessional lyrics, the kind of bread and butter that provides Tori Amos or Alannis Morrisette with multi-Platinum™ sales. Unlike these chart-topping “angry young women,” however, Malone’s material resounds with sincerity and realism. Her anger has been tempered somewhat by humility, a point best shown by Homegrown’s bittersweet title track. Looking back over the last decade, running in place while the rest of the world runs by, Malone laments “I’ve been sitting in this apartment waiting for my ship to sail/but the canvas started rotting through and there’s rust upon the sail.” Springsteen once asked listeners “is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?” Malone sings “this is my home – where my dreams began to fade.” The physical place of “home” becomes a metaphor for an entire career. Nevertheless, the song shows a glimmer of hope, Malone accepting the way things are with a realization that she’ll carry on in spite of the cost.

Whether Malone would like another shot at the brass ring with a major label or would be content with a long-term home on a stable indie is beyond my knowledge. I do know that I’ve been listening to Malone since her major label debut almost a decade ago, and I’ve seen her continue to mature as an artist. Unlike many more successful folks, I’ve never heard a bad Michelle Malone album. It’s a strange coincidence, but Malone’s career parallels that of Kiya Heartwood. Both were signed by Arista at roughly the same time – Malone with her Drag the River band and Heartwood with Stealin’ Horses. Both released impressive, critically acclaimed debut albums, both are Southern storytellers and Arista had no idea what to do with either of them.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

While Heartwood has recorded sporadically since, most recently in a duo called Wishing Chair, Malone continues to crank out fine music for whatever label happens to like her at the moment. Michelle Malone is a true treasure, though, and living proof that sales aren’t the only measure of an artist. You owe it to yourself to discover her talents – I promise that the day will come when Malone will be recognized as the artist that she is. (Strange Bird Songs, released November 11, 1999)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™, 1999

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Friday, August 20, 2021

Archive Review: The Bottle Rockets’ Brand New Year (1999)

The Bottle Rockets’ Brand New Year
Forever doomed, it seems, to working the cult-following fringes of the alt-country music scene, the Bottle Rockets return to the indie ranks with Brand New Year, a solid, if not spectacular set of songs. The band’s overwhelming appeal has always been in the songwriting skills of Brian Henneman and the shit-kicking country/rock hybrid that underlined the lyrics. 

With Brand New Year, though, Henneman hides behind a co-writer on seven cuts out of the fourteen, kicking in only three solo songs. Contrast that with the eight solo cuts he wrote for 24 Hours A Day, arguably the Bottle Rockets’ best effort, and you’ll see where Brand New Year falls off. When Henneman is collaborating with folks like ex-Georgia Satellite Dan Baird or producer Eric “Roscoe” Ambel, the results are lively, with the writers working well off each other. Other collaborative efforts sound more strained and lifeless.

That’s not to say that there isn’t some good music to be found on Brand New Year – several cuts here will produce smoke and flames from that five-CD changer of yours. The Baird collaboration, “Nancy Sinatra,” is as funny as it is naughty, “I’ve Been Dying” shows more attitude than any dozen punk songs you’d care to name while the anti-technology cut “Helpless” paints Henneman as a joyful luddite. The powerful “Gotta Get Up” is a minimalist anthem for every blue-collar Joe whose life revolves around the 40-hour week. With cranked up amps, tortured guitars and brilliantly simple lyrics, “Gotta Get Up” effectively portrays the working class grind.

However, the flat spots on Brand New Year, especially the inane “The Bar’s On Fire,” detract from the album’s musical high points. The result is something I never thought I’d hear from the Bottle Rockets – an uneven album. Even a mediocre Bottle Rockets’ album is better than almost any other band you’ll hear, though, and Brand New Year’s best cuts still stand head-and-shoulders above 90% of the dreck you’ll find out there. (Doolittle Records, released August 10, 1999)

Originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™, 1999

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Friday, August 13, 2021

Archive Review: Ani DiFranco & Utah Phillips’ Fellow Workers (1999)

Ani DiFranco & Utah Phillips’ Fellow Workers
Ani DiFranco has made a good living by defying expectations and laughing in the face of conventional wisdom. When the major labels ignored her unique brand of punk-folk, she started her own label – Righteous Babe Records – and made it a great success. When the big boys finally came sniffing around, sensing that a buck or two could be made off DiFranco’s seemingly unlimited talent, she turned her back to the multinationals – hell, she didn’t need them as bad as they needed the artistic credibility she could provide. And when DiFranco made the decision to add an artist to her label’s exclusive roster, she didn’t go looking for some hot indie band, but rather developed a project with folk singer and political activist Utah Phillips.

Ani DiFranco & Utah Phillips’ Fellow Workers

Fellow Workers, the second collaboration between DiFranco and Phillips, is a wonderfully subversive collection of both original and traditional stories and songs with a sharp political edge. Phillips, an old school Industrial Workers of the World union member or “wobblie,” relates tales of the extraordinary feats of average people who propelled worker’s rights forward through activism, strikes and their own sacrifices. The forty-hour week, the eight-hour day, annual vacations, worker safety and many other rights that we currently enjoy can all be directly tied to the defiance of union members and “fellow workers” during the early part of this century.
DiFranco and her crackerjack band create an ever-moving musical undercurrent beneath Phillip’s storytelling, mixing musical genres from acoustic folk to organic ambience in support of the grizzled Phillip’s friendly vocals. Touching upon some of the labor movement’s most beloved figures, such as Mary “Mother Jones” Harris, as well as rank-and-file folks like Tom Scribener, the saw-playing musician, Phillips bring these folk heroes to life with his energetic sharing of these important stories.

A thought-provoking and valuable collection, Fellow Workers shows that, contrary to what the corporate media might say, there’s still a little life left in the struggle yet. Progressive politics doesn’t have to consist of boring intellectualism or corrupt unionism but can be lively, joyous and accessible. The songs and stories on Fellow Workers are about hope and the desire for a better world that includes us all, regardless of race or creed or how much money one has in the bank. With this collaborative effort, DiFranco and Phillips keep this hope alive. (Righteous Babe Records, released May 18, 1999)

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Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™, 1999

Friday, August 6, 2021

Classic Rock Review: Warren Zevon's Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School (1980)

Warren Zevon's Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School
Facing the new decade, the legendary Warren Zevon had a tough act to follow…his third album, 1978’s Excitable Boy, had yielded a Top 30 hit in “Werewolves of London,” an enduring classic of ‘70s rock that has since appeared in numerous movies and been covered by bands like the Grateful Dead and the Flamin’ Groovies, among others. The chart success of the song (peaking at #21) fueled sales of the album, pushing it into the Top 10 (to #8) and almost-immediate Gold™ Record status for over half-a-million platters sold. Other songs from Excitable Boy – “Lawyers, Guns & Money,” “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner,” “Johnny Strikes Up the Band,” and the enthusiastic title track – established Zevon as an intelligent and erudite, if quirky songwriter and vocalist possessing a way with words and a taste for the macabre.

Warren Zevon’s Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School

Released in February 1980, Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School was an appropriate, if slightly less commercially-successful, follow-up to Excitable Boy. From the album title to the material contained herein, Zevon’s whipsmart lyrics and dark humor dominate over an all-star cast of musicians that included longtime collaborator Jorge Calderón; multi-instrumental talent David Lindley; guitarists Jackson Browne, Waddy Wachtel, and Joe Walsh; singer Linda Ronstadt; and members of the Eagles. The album features six original Zevon songs (plus two instrumental “interludes”) alongside a single cover song and co-writes with Calderón, T-Bone Burnett (who had toured with Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue), and another rising rock ‘n’ roll star, Bruce Springsteen.

At the time of its release, critics were rather lukewarm on Bad Luck Streak, with Robert Christgau giving the album a rare B- grade (most of Zevon’s albums rated As). Writing in Rolling Stone magazine, critic Jay Cocks was complimentary overall, but most reviewers were seemingly confused by Zevon’s oddball songs and poignant glimpses into his own humanity. The album has since found kindness in reappraisal, with All Music Guide’s Mark Deming writing in 2015, “the album’s rockers hit harder and cut deeper than any of his previous work,” concluding that “while Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School didn’t quite return Zevon to the top of his game, it made clear that the quality of Warren Zevon was no fluke, and is a stronger effort than Excitable Boy in nearly every respect.”

I have to agree with Deming…Bad Luck Streak is overall a strong creative effort, an album that builds upon the strengths of its predecessor while inching, albeit slowly, onto new creative ground. Co-produced by Zevon and Greg Ladanyi (who’d worked with Browne and Fleetwood Mac), the pair perfectly capture the talents of the assorted instrumentalists while still placing an emphasis on Zevon’s strong, evocative vocals and poetic lyrics. The album-opening title track is a bit of a bawdy throw-away (“dancing school” a longtime euphemism for a brothel), but the song’s fierce fretwork and introductory orchestral flourishes point towards Zevon’s symphonic ambitions. An inspired cover of Ernie K-Doe’s 1961 hit “A Certain Girl” skews closer to the Yardbirds’ 1964 version than the New Orleans R&B of the original, but Zevon’s call-and-response vocals, backed by a chaotic instrumental soundtrack, provided the singer with his second charting hit single.
Bad Luck Streak picks up steam with the muscular ode to mercenary soldiers, “Jungle Work,” which features strident vocals, iron-pumping percussion, and Joe Walsh’s jagged guitar licks. The grand ballad “Empty-Handed Heart” (featuring a verse sung by Ronstadt) was written for Zevon’s impending divorce and reveals a sliver of the singer’s inner turmoil. “Bed of Coals” and “Wild Age” are of a similar thread, the former a lovely piano-driven ballad and the latter a more mid-tempo tune with a melodic groove; both songs delve inward, lyrically, as Zevon attempts to face up to his shortcomings with self-reflection, the emotion supported by Lindley’s wiry yet nuanced fretwork.

Play It All Night Long

At the core of Bad Luck Streak are the three songs that anchor the album and save it, perhaps, from melancholy and maudlin sentiment. “Play It All Night Long” is a dark-hued caricature of life in the deep south that cleverly references Lynyrd Skynyrd while revealing the lie behind the glorification of the Southern lifestyle. With barbed lyrics that address poverty, racism, and substance abuse, Zevon delivers one of his most scathing vocal performances above the mournful sounds of Browne’s guitar and Lindley’s pedal steel. The Springsteen co-write, “Jeannie Needs A Shooter,” was released as the second single from the album, and it should have been a huge hit. Zevon’s lyrics are inscrutable, as usual, but the song’s tale of romance and betrayal, and Walsh’s imaginative lead guitar – bolstered by slight background orchestration and a strong melody – should have helped the song receive a modicum of chart success.

“Gorilla, You’re A Desperado” is too often considered the album’s novelty song, a pithy comedic throwaway that lightens the mood before the one-two punch of introspection that closes Bad Luck Streak. I view it differently, however, and have long considered the song a savage satire of the music biz specifically and the entertainment industry-dominated Southern California lifestyle in general. Yes, it’s a funny song with visual lyrics and an infectious melody and plenty of meta references but it also features a jaunty, cheeky Zevon vocal performance alongside Jackson Browne’s tasteful slide-guitar playing and a rich musical backdrop. It’s novel only in that the song is an unbridled expression of Zevon’s imagination, which makes it a worthy successor to “Werewolves of London.”

Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School would enjoy modest success, with the aforementioned “A Certain Girl” haunting the upper half of the Billboard “Hot 100” singles chart while the album itself notched a #20 placement on the albums chart, not too shabby a showing considering that Zevon was uniquely out-of-step with musical trends at the time. The stopgap live album Stand In the Fire was released in late 1980, followed by the eccentric collection The Envoy in 1982. In spite of his earlier commercial success, Asylum Records dumped Zevon after The Envoy failed to chart, and as the artist sunk into drug and alcohol abuse, he wouldn’t record again for five years and the critically-acclaimed 1987 album Sentimental Hygiene…but that’s a story for another time. (Asylum Records, 1980)

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Archive Review: Warren Zevon’s Life’ll Kill Ya (2000)

Warren Zevon’s Life’ll Kill Ya
Warren Zevon’s first studio effort in years finds him back in rare form. In recent interviews with the critically-acclaimed artist, Zevon has expressed a personal satori of sorts, the observation that rock ‘n’ roll seems to be made by a bunch of angry young men who really have few reasons for such venomous outpourings of angst and frustration. Middle age, claims Zevon, is where the real funk settles in, when body parts start to give out (illustrated perfectly on Life’ll Kill Ya by Zevon’s hilarious “My Shit’s Fucked Up”) and your own mortality becomes crystal clear. This is the theme that runs throughout Life’ll Kill Ya, and as an aging scribe a mere whistle stop away from full-blown middle age status, I can readily identify with Zevon’s message.

This is no youthful collection of songs, but rather the slightly cynical, mature and pragmatic observations of a talented artist who has trodden a few long and dark roads. Whether he’s delving into the bittersweet nature of love, as with “For My Next Trick I’ll Need A Volunteer,” or sharing the realization, on the title track, that none of us get out of this world alive, Zevon’s songs are poetic puzzles, their meanings often revealed piece by piece. His ode to Elvis, the darkly amusing “Porcelain Monkey,” is the best song written about the great American icon and the fleeting nature of fame while a cover of Steve Winwood’s treacly “Back In the High Life Again” revives the song with a slow, soulful rendering. Accompanied by sparse instrumentation that walks a fine line between rock and folk, the songs on Life’ll Kill Ya represent Zevon’s best performances in a decade. It’s an inspiring collection, a resounding roar from an old lion that isn’t ready to give up his place at the table among the young cubs quite yet. (Artemis Records, released January 25, 2000)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™, 2000

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