Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Jerks of Grass - Come On Home

Rating: B

My introduction to the Jerks of Grass was at the inaugural Saddleback Mountain Bluegrass Festival earlier this month. I was impressed with their energy and music virtuosity and picked up their CD.

How does their live act translate to disc? The musical skill is definitely on display. Two Bela Fleck tunes, "Stomping Grounds," and "Big Country," showcase the impressive pickers. Kris Day's bass dueling with Jason Phelps' guitar in "Stomping Grounds" is particularly noteworthy. There aren't too many bass players skilled enough to play solos on record. Phelps slips between guitar and mandolin, while Carter Logan alternates between five-string banjo, dobro, and guitar. The variety of instruments gives the band a full sound even with only four members; the fourth, Melissa Bragdon, plays fiddle throughout.

The album does hit a couple flat notes. While the group shines during up-tempo tunes like "Foggy Mountain Special" and "Why You Been Gone So Long," slow change-of-pace tune "Come On Home" feels dull, failing to match Day's strong voice. The other vocalists sometimes leave a bit to be desired; Phelps takes the high tunes and Logan the low ones, and while they make it work it isn't the quartet's strong suit. Probably the harshest criticism is that while the album is good and entertaining throughout, there's no one moment that really stands out as extraordinary.

The group is at its best in the several instrumental tunes on Come On Home. Whether led by Bragdon's fiddle in slow and sentimental "Tennessee Waltz," by Phelps' mandolin in the fast, melodic "In The House of Tom Bombadil," or by Logan's banjo in the spacious, mellow "Big Country," the Jerks love to throw their technical skill around. Is it ever transcendent? Probably not, but it's a lot of fun.

Buy it from Amazon:
Come On Home
Jerks of Grass Official Site

Saturday, August 28, 2010

LCD Soundsystem - This Is Happening

Rating: B+

It's tough to evaluate This Is Happening, because James Murphy and co's last album Sound Of Silver kicked my ass so hard. "All My Friends" was my favorite song of the year for 2007, and one of my favorite tracks of the decade. I'm not normally huge on dancey stuff, but this was different. Sure, it had it's groovy moments, but it never strayed too far from its emotional core, an even-handed look at nostalgia and the way we view the past. The title track reminds us that as much as things "make you want to feel like a teenager," then "you remember the feelings of / a real-life, emotional teenager. / Then you think again."

But wait, I'm not reviewing Sound of Silver, I'm reviewing This Is Happening. I guess this is my point; Silver was just a terrific record, touching chords of the heart at the same time it made you move your feet. How can Murphy follow it up? Well, it's not quite as ambitious as Sound of Silver, but it's definitely not as stupid as you'd expect from an album with songs named "Drunk Girls" and "Pow Pow." The former, for all its club feel and subject matter, contains gems of lines like "Just 'cause you're hungry doesn't mean that you're lean." And the latter cuts through banal tales of party sideline activity with cutting questions like "But honestly, and be honest with yourself, how much time do you waste?"

This is Happening gives its tracks room to breathe; only "Drunk Girls" clocks in at less than five-and-a-half minutes. Leadoff track "Dance Yrself Clean" is a nice example; it kicks off the album in subdued fashion with just a backbeat and quiet vocals before the synthesizers kick in three minutes in, at which point things really takes off. The longest track, "You Wanted a Hit," runs over nine minutes, starting with a dream-like synthesizer wash as the drums and bass kick in and rise in volume. Amazingly, the space in these songs never bores, and there aren't any duds on here that make you groan and skip to the next track.

Murphy has a great feel for the emotions bubbling beneath the surface of ostensibly happy party-goers and teens / twenty-somethings: anxiety, joy, uncertainty, loneliness, and passion. The heart of the album is "All I Want's" refrain of "All I want is your pity / And all I want is your bitter tears." This Is Happening shows LCD Soundsystem maybe not at its strongest, but pretty darn close.

Buy it from Amazon:
This Is Happening
LCD Soundsystem Official Site

Sunday, August 15, 2010

LIve Review - 8/14/2010: SolidSound Festival

A week after hitting up the first annual Saddleback Mountain Bluegrass Festival, I hit up another inaugural event: The SolidSound festival curated by Wilco at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MassMoCA). The festival combined MassMoCA's typical array of visual arts displays with comedy and musical performances. I spent much of the day perusing the interesting artwork, watching hilarious comedy, and generally just wandering around. In the evening, I moseyed over to the main stage (on a field within the museum grounds) for Mavis Staples and Wilco.

Mavis Staples: legendary from her work with The Staple Singers, Staples has teamed up with some high profile producers on her last two albums, 2007's We'll Never Turn Back, produced by Ry Cooder, and the forthcoming You Are Not Alone, produced by Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy. Staples teamed up with Tweedy for the title track on that album (which he wrote) and Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Wrote a Song for Everyone." She largely stuck to gospel standards, though she did throw in The Band classic "The Weight." At one point, Staples left the stage for ten minutes while her capable band played on. It was a little scary and didn't seem planned, but Staples came back to close with The Staple Singers' big hit "I'll Take You There."

Wilco: Wilco has gone from an iffy live band to a terrific one, and their now-stable lineup keeps pushing them to new heights. The sextet started off with a lot of material off their new album and no between-songs patter, but after a few tunes Tweedy and the rest of the group loosened up. Highlights included the crowd sing-along for almost the entire song "Jesus, Etc.," the extended feedback at the intro of "I'm the Man Who Loves You" (including Glenn Kotche standing on his drum kit like he was in K.I.S.S.), and a nod to hardcore fans by playing unreleased B-Sides "Not For the Season," "Cars Can't Escape," and "A Magazine Called Sunset" as well as debut-album relic "I Must Be High." After playing for two hours, the band came on for an encore consisting of "California Stars," "Heavy Metal Drummer," and Woody Guthrie-co-written "Hoodoo Voodoo," which featured guitarists Nels Cline and Pat Sansome trading blistering guitar riffs. A great performance to serve as the keystone for the festival.

SolidSound Festival official site
MassMoCA official site
Wilco official site
Mavis Staples official site

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Live Review - 8/7/2010: Saddleback Mountain Bluegrass Festival

Grey Fox is the signature Northeastern bluegrass festival, but last week a new contender came on the scene. The Saddleback Mountain Bluegrass Festival may lack in size and history, but it compensated impressively with beautiful scenery and a stellar lineup. The festival was held in scenic Rangeley, in western Maine, and the mountains provided a backdrop for the stage through the show.

The bands were a nice mix of big national acts (The Del McCoury Band, David Grisman, Infamous Stringdusters) and bands with Maine ties (Jerks of Grass and the Stowaways), with Darol Anger bridging the two worlds. The schedule only ran one day and ended at 8 PM, but it was perfect for a fine day of bluegrass music.

Best act: Del McCoury brought out the big guns, playing an extra half-hour. David "Dawg" Grisman and Darol Anger joined the band for some crazy jamming late, including three different harmony mandolin breaks between Grisman and Ronnie McCoury. Nearly as impressive was a haunting version of gospel classic "Get On Your Knees and Pray," featuring stark music and four-part harmonies.

Saddleback Mountain Bluegrass Festival official site
Del McCoury official site
David Grisman official site
Infamous Stringdusters official site
Darol Anger official site
Jerks of Grass official site