Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Fauntleroys: “Below The Pink Pony” (2014) CD Review

The Fauntleroys are a new group made up of folks you’re likely already quite familiar with: Alejandro Escovedo, Ivan Julian, Nicholas Tremulis and Linda Pitmon. Alejandro Escovedo has a nice long solo career, and you might also know him from his work with Rank And File. Ivan Julian was a member of Richard Hell And The Voidoids and The Outsets. You heard Linda Pitmon on the new Steve Wynn disc, Sketches In Spain, which was released earlier this month. Last year, Nicholas Tremulis Orchestra released For The Baby Doll. These excellent musicians have now joined forces on a new six-song CD, Below The Pink Pony, which features some nice raw rock music with a ton of energy. This is mostly original material.

Below The Pink Pony opens with “I’m In Love With Everything.” The main line is “I’m so in love with everything, and everything loves me,” but the tone of voice leads us to believe otherwise, especially as we hear “I was watching a crowd, trying to make it bleed/You were thinking aloud, trying to pretend you were talking to me.” The sounds of the music are like that of a love song, turned and twisted and arrived at from some bizarre angle. Yeah, I totally dig it. It’s a cool and slightly odd rock tune to kick off the CD.

It’s followed by “Chinese White,” the album’s one cover song. It was originally done by the Incredible String Band. The Fauntleroys give it a harder, kind of darker edge, and a great intensity.

“Suck My Heart Out With A Straw” is a tune that Ivan Julian apparently had in mind for years, but to which he only now added the lyrics. It’s a fantastic rock song with a punk edge. Where was this song when I was a teenager? It taps into that undirected but very potent energy, and is a song you just want to turn up loud enough that you lose yourself in its strength and attitude. It’s funny how it works that exact way even though I’m far from my teen years. Here is a taste of the lyrics: “Like something dying in the fridge/Like someone jumping off the bridge/Just like Myra Breckinridge/Why can’t you just suck my heart out with a straw.”

“Worry Doll” is a rock tune bristling with attitude, but with something of a sense of humor. I mean, this is a song that has the phrase “machete wrapped in blue chiffon.”

“(This Can’t Be) Julie’s Song” brings to mind some of the work by the Velvet Underground, particularly on the chorus. It’s a delicious track, with some darker tones and some interesting drumming by Linda Pitmon. Also, I love her backing vocals on this track. “In your eyes I see what’s supposed to be/When your loving feels like everything/’Cause when you touch me I get swept away.”

Below The Pink Pony concludes with “Take You Far Away,” a song written by Nicholas Tremulis and Alejandro Escovedo. At first it feels a bit mellower than some of the other tracks, but before long this one has gathered an excellent energy and urgency, particularly on the repeated line, “I want to take you far away.”

CD Track List

  1. I’m In Love With Everything
  2. Chinese White
  3. Suck My Heart Out With A Straw
  4. Worry Doll
  5. (This Can’t Be) Julie’s Song
  6. Take You Far Away

Below The Pink Pony is scheduled to be released on September 16, 2014 on Plowboy Records.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Deena: “Rock River” (2014) CD Review

Certain artists and bands have an interesting way of coming back into my life. In the mid-1990s I was a radio DJ in Oregon and was turned onto a lot of great music. One album that we played a lot and which I loved was The Cucumbers’ Where We Sleep Tonight. It came out in 1994, and contains a lot of great tunes, including one that I put on several mix tapes (yes, tapes), a song called “Flies.” It’s a song that still works its way into my brain quite often, and sometimes I’ll find myself singing a few lines of it during my day, usually that line “Trees and other tall things move around, but not very much,” which has always made me smile. In fact, I was listening to it recently while I was in Boston, because the car I have access to there has a tape deck. Somehow after that album I lost track of the band.

But they continued to release music. And earlier this year singer/guitarist Deena Shoshkes released a solo album, Rock River, under the name Deena. It’s actually her second solo release, and is quite a bit different from what I’d heard from The Cucumbers, but just as delightful and interesting. One thing that really impressed me about that band was the vocals. And here Deena’s vocals continue to stand out and totally work for me. She has a voice that’s perfect for pop, and also perfect for country, and for folk, and on this album she mixes those musical genres to wonderful effect. All of the songs here are originals, written or co-written by Deena. And her husband and fellow Cucumbers member Jon Fried plays guitar and provides backing vocals on a few tracks, which is great.

Rock River opens with one of my favorite tracks, “My Own Advice.” It has a fun groove, and shows how great pop music can be when in the right hands. And it features a chorus that has elements of country: “If I could take my own advice/I might be sitting on sugar spice/Do it once and don’t think twice, oh yeah.” I totally dig the instrumental section, with nice work on keys and guitar. Jon Fried provides backing vocals on this track.

I love what Deena does vocally on “Find The Love.” She starts off sounding just adorable, singing about the love letters she has: “I've got the sweetest love letters from you/I believe every word you wrote me is true/Sometimes I take them out and read them to myself at night/When I'm feeling cold and I'm feeling I could use some light.” But she finds variations and changes, which keep this catchy tune interesting. For example, listen to the way she delivers these lines: “Tuesday's on and Monday's gone, long gone/Thursday's coming round, you know it won't be long.”

“Bring It All” is a sweet, somewhat mellow tune with country and folk elements. It features Rob Friedman on pedal steel and mandolin. I love the honesty and delight in Deena’s voice as she tells us, “Oh, I’m so ready for this.” “Bring It All” was co-written by Deena and David Graham. Jon Fried plays guitar and provides backing vocals on this track.

“Comes With Kisses” is so sweet, so pretty, with some wonderful lyrics. This early line caught me the first time I listened to it: “I just found out my heart/Thinks we’re in love.” How great is that? There is an innocence and youth to her voice, and so a vulnerability and also a hope, an optimism. This song then takes on another dimension as the bass and drums come in approximately halfway through. “Comes With Kisses” was co-written by Deena and David Graham.

Deena follows it with a fun pop song, “All She Wrote,” which has something of an early rock and roll vibe. There are great, brief a cappella moments as she ends certain stanzas. And how adorable she sounds on “Come and let me show you what I’m going to do,” a line delivered with a quiet and kind of sexy confidence. This is a song to get you on your feet, and it features Rebecca Turner and Elena Skye on backing vocals.

“My Friend Superman” is a somewhat silly song about Superman’s domestic life, and features a horn section. It was co-written by Deena and Chris Dickson. Jon Fried plays guitar and provides backing vocals.

“We’ll Take It From There” is a sweet, simple love song, with innocent and straightforward lyrics: “We could go to a restaurant/Or just sit and talk in a parking lot/I’d be happy anywhere/When you get here, we’ll take it from there/Where you are is where I want to be/‘Cause you are who I want to see/Anything we do will be fine with me if I’m with you.” She totally sells it. This track was co-written by Deena and Vaughan Daniel.

“Heart Full Of Now” is another favorite of mine. It has such a happy sound, the guitar reminding me at first a bit of Clan Dyken, those joyous sounds. This song lifts me up and sweeps aside any concerns and disappointments. It is unabashed pop of the absolute best kind. Here is a taste of the lyrics: “You’ve got me where you want me and there’s nothing I can do/Some invisible something is pulling me to you/It seems I’m going willingly, it seems there’s nothing stopping me/It seems there’s nothing stopping me/I felt you kissing me/What a sweet surprise coming over me/Because I didn’t ask, you see/And I’m all full of love.” It was co-written by Deena and David Graham.
I’m so happy that this talented singer/songwriter is back in my musical world, and I’m looking forward to hearing more from her. And now I need to go back and catch up on everything I’ve missed from her (and from The Cucumbers) in the past couple of decades.

CD Track List

  1. My Own Advice
  2. Find The Love
  3. Bring It All
  4. Comes With Kisses
  5. All She Wrote
  6. I Will Never Be Your Valentine
  7. My Friend Superman
  8. We’ll Take It From There
  9. Always Tomorrow
  10. Heart Full Of Now
  11. Mr. Nobody
  12. When I Fall

Rock River was released on March 4, 2014 on Life Force Records.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Red Molly: “Light In The Sky” (2011) CD Review

I’ve been listening to Red Molly a lot lately. The group’s most recent CD, The Red Album, features a lot of excellent original material, as well as a cover of the Richard Thompson song for which the band was named. Their previous release, Light In The Sky, contains more cover material, including songs by Gillian Welch, Doc Watson and Mark Erelli. They do a pretty and sweet rendition of Dolly Parton’s “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind,” as well as a wonderful rendition of Amy Speace’s “It’s Too Late To Call It A Night,” featuring Herb Gardner on altoon. There are only a few original tunes, but this is a group that is able to do a lot with its choices of covers, making the songs their own while not forgetting the spirit of the originals.

Gillian Welch

Light In The Sky opens with “Dear Someone,” delivered a cappella to show straight away the gorgeous qualities of their voices. It’s a beautiful way to open the album, and their rendition gives the song a delightful timeless quality. “Dear Someone” was written by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.

They also cover Gillian Welch’s “By The Mark,” a gospel tune from her 1996 debut album, Revival. Red Molly's version is a more upbeat and lively take on the song.

“Walk Beside Me”

Red Molly does an excellent cover of “Walk Beside Me,” a song written by Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott. Red Molly delivers this song with an energy and passion. Again, it is the vocals that really drive the song, but there is also some wonderful work by Jake Armerding on both fiddle and mandolin. The original version appeared on Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott’s 2005 release, Real Time.

“Come On In My Kitchen”

Red Molly does some interesting stuff with “Come On In My Kitchen,” the well-known Robert Johnson song. The vocals are at the fore, and they actually begin it a cappella. There is that blues base, but there are times when Red Molly strays from it (such as the way they do the “wind howls” part). It certainly has quite a different feel from the original, with a bit of a quicker tempo. There are some additional lyrics by Abbie Gardner, and they also toss in a bit of “It Hurts Me Too.” Herb Gardner plays organ on this track.

“Oh My Michael”

“Oh My Michael” is one of the album’s original songs, written by Abbie Gardner and Jonathan Byrd. It’s a slow, gorgeous tune. Abbie sings, “If I were a siren I’d call him ashore/And on the rocks I’d be lonely no more.” Ah, but the voices of these women would seem to have that very power. Plus, personally I’m happy to have such a beautiful song with my name in the title. I hope this one can establish itself in my brain to the point of finally evicting “Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore.”

“Hold It All” is another of this CD’s original songs, Molly Venter’s songwriting contribution to this album. It’s a beautiful song, with the voices at the fore and the guitar quietly behind them. “Trying to do what I can/Trying to be who I am/And I’m tired, I’m tired.” This is one that got right on top of me, and is one of my personal favorites. “God, I don’t know what to do with this love that I’ve tasted.”

The CD’s third original song is “Hello Goodbye,” written by Abbie Gardner and Herb Gardner. It’s a playful tune with a delightful instrumental section. Herb Gardner plays piano on this track.

Mark Erelli

The women of Red Molly are fans of Mark Erelli, having covered his song “Pretend” on their most recent release. And on this CD, they cover two of his songs. The first is “Ghost,” an incredibly moving song of loss and holding on to what is lost. Mark Erelli is a seriously talented songwriter, and Red Molly does a really good job with his material, getting right into the emotional center of “Ghost.” “And nobody answers when I call out your name/And I need you the most when you’re not around/I’m in love with your ghost.”

They also cover Mark Erelli’s “Why Should I Cry,” a fun, peppy tune about being lonely. Jake Armerding provides some wonderful touches on fiddle. Both of these songs were included on Mark Erelli's 2001 release, Compass And Companion.


The CD ends with a cover of “Fever,” a song I absolutely adore. It’s a song that you really can’t go wrong with, unless you’re Madonna (I still can’t get over how she completely missed the mark with her shitty rendition - someone please spank her for me). Red Molly’s version feels a bit faster than a lot of versions, but is still kind of sexy. Craig Akin is featured prominently on bass. (Is it just me, or are they singing "flame in you" instead of "flaming youth"?)

CD Track List

  1. Dear Someone
  2. Walk Beside Me
  3. Come On In My Kitchen
  4. Do I Ever Cross Your Mind
  5. Oh My Michael
  6. Does My Ring Burn Your Finger
  7. Ghost
  8. Hold It All
  9. Hello Goodbye
  10. Your Long Journey
  11. By The Mark
  12. It’s Too Late To Call It A Night
  13. Why Should I Cry
  14. Fever

Red Molly is Laurie MacAllister, Abbie Gardner and Molly Venter.

Light In The Sky was released on October 4, 2011.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Chris Smither: “Still On The Levee” (2014) CD Review

I first heard Chris Smither back when I got into folk music in the late 1980s. And then when I was a DJ in Oregon, Up On The Lowdown was released, and we used to play a lot from that disc. I knew he’d been around for a while, but I no idea just how long. His new two-disc set, Still On The Levee, celebrates fifty years of music. Fifty years. That’s incredible.

Still On The Levee is not a greatest hits compilation. In fact, it’s not really a compilation at all. Chris Smither has gone back to record new versions of some of his best material. It’s a celebration of his work, but is a look forward at the same time as being a look back, as these songs take on a new and fresh and different life.  This is folk and blues, and the age in his voice really adds another dimension and depth to these songs. For example, in “Rosalie” when he sings, “I’m walking along, I’ve been singing a song about Rosalie,” the age in his voice gives the impression that he’s been walking a long time, carrying the woman around in his head. And it seems the older you get, the better the blues work, the more they feel believable, real, lived. You know? Check out “Another Way To Find You,” for example. His vocals have an authority. I love the brutal, beautiful reality and honesty of this music. Nothing is overproduced. He also displays a wonderful humor in a song like “Lola” (with lines like “She says the love ain’t cheap, but the pain is free/And I say, ‘But that sounds good to me!’”).

Some good guests appear on these recordings as well, including Loudon Wainwright III, Allen Toussaint, Kris Delmhorst and Dana Colley. This excellent two-disc set includes a book, featuring the lyrics and lots of photographs.

Chris Smither gets things going with a sweet, even pretty rendition of “Devil Got Your Man.” There is a wonderful and appropriate weariness to Chris’ vocal delivery. It’s a voice of experience.  And adding to the song’s beauty is Anita Suhanin on backing vocals.

I love the sense of humor to “Don’t It Drag On.” The song has a sweet, relaxed vibe to it, and the humor kind of sneaks in through that straight-forward vocal delivery, lines like “I’m just a lazy man falling in love again/I got too much time to spare.” And the age (and wisdom) in his voice really adds another layer to this song. Originally it was the title track to his 1972 release. There is some nice work on harmonica on this track.

“Love You Like A Man” is a fun bluesy bit of bliss. “You’re coming home sad/You’re laying down to cry/What you need is a man to hold you/Not some fool to ask you why.” There’s a great strain in his voice. I love that moment when he goes from certainty to a more honest assessment in the line “I could – I think I could be your lover man.” It’s delightful and funny.

“Song For Susan” is one of my favorites. I find it so moving, the simplicity and honesty of it.  And with experience, he sings, “’Cause Love ain’t easy/Who told you that it would be.”  There is something heartbreaking about his delivery here. “’Cause someplace I know you need me.”

This album includes an absolutely wonderful rendition of “’Deed I Do.” This was one of my favorite songs from Up On The Lowdown. And this rendition on Still On The Levee features Catherine Norr on vocals. It has a sweet sadness to its sound. “Why does all this heartbreak call me lovingly?/How does it know how to open my door?” Chris Smither follows it with another tune from Up On The Lowdown, a slightly more stripped down version of the cool blues song “Link Of Chain,” with a nice little intro not featured in the original version.

The second disc kicks off with a great bluesy folk tune, “Hold On,” that has a beautiful back porch feel. It has a delicious vibe, in part because of the great work on harmonica by Jimmy Fitting. This is one of my favorite tracks. Here is a taste of the lyrics: “My freedom will be measured/By the length to which I’ll disobey/Tell me where to go/And I’ll freely tell you no/And I will hold on.”

He follows that with a cool slow blues tune, “Shillin’ For The Blues,” the original version of which was on his 2006 release Leave The Light On. Here Chris gets deliciously low and mean in his vocal approach. He sings, “I’ll say I ain’t surprised, my sense of humor’s paralyzed by the blues,” and a moment later, he delivers a deep repetition of “by the blues” that sounds so damn good. Making things even more interesting is the presence of Dana Colley on baritone sax.  This is definitely one of this CD’s highlights.

Another highlight is an excellent rendition of “What They Say,” featuring Loudon Wainwright III on vocals. There is a joy to this track, and a great loose vibe. Something that makes you feel you’re listening to friends sing and play, and you’re almost a part of it. This is a more recent song, included on 2012’s Hundred Dollar Valentine.

This disc also includes a really good version of “Up On The Lowdown,” the title track from his 1995 release. This version features some more good work on harmonica, and a good familiar feel to the instrumental sections.  There is also a playful aspect to the vocals, which I love. “It would shake a more suspicious mind/But I just like the sound.” And I love his delivery of “This simple secret is the key to my attraction.”

Interestingly, both discs end with a version of “Leave The Light On.” Both versions are really good, and both feature Rusty Belle, but each is quite different. The first has a nice, sweet, vibe, an almost happy feel to it. Chris Smither’s daughter, Robin, is featured on this track. The second version begins with Kate Lorenz on lead vocals, and has a kind of underlying intensity. Chris takes over lead vocals on the second verse: “I’ve never seen my life in such a hurry.” And later when their vocals blend, there is definitely a beauty. “I’ve been left for dead before, but I still fight on/Don’t wait up, leave the light on/I’ll be home soon.”

CD Track List

Disc One

  1. Devil Got Your Man
  2. Don’t It Drag On
  3. No More Cane On The Brazos
  4. Love You Like A Man
  5. Rosalie
  6. Lonesome Georgia Brown
  7. Song For Susan
  8. Another Way To Find You
  9. ‘Deed I Do
  10. Link Of Chain
  11. Train Home
  12. Lola
  13. Leave The Light On 

Disc Two

  1. Hold On
  2. Shillin’ For The Blues
  3. No Love Today
  4. What They Say
  5. Slow Surprise
  6. Can’t Shake These Blues
  7. Call Time
  8. Up On The Lowdown
  9. Seems So Real
  10. Small Revelations
  11. Winsome Smile
  12. Leave The Light On

Still On The Levee was released on July 22, 2014.