Monthly Archives: September 2013

Sound ‘Round: Daniel Domano / Johnny Cash

Ballads and bibles. 

Daniel Romano: Come Cry With Me (Normaltown)

Daniel Romano - Come Cry With MeWell versed in the tradition of Nashville tearjerkers, it’s easier to peg this Canadian as a dilettante than it is to rate his musical sincerity. Expressing heartbreak in ho-hum and hackneyed fashion, he fluffs up the choruses with whimpered coos and piles on lap steel in exact proportion to the melodrama. Add the Ron Jeremy mustache and Porter Wagoner suits, and the whole thing becomes more caricature than tribute. Though his intentions remain vague, his results are not. The melodies prove hefty despite his thin drawl, and the forlorn grief is so hyperbolic and rudimentary it borders on comedy. When he’s funny on purpose, however (he’s not “Crying Over You,” he’s sharpening his acting skills), he outdoes damn near every one of his mainstream country contemporaries stateside. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: I’m Not Crying Over You” / “Between Me and You” / “That’s The Very Moment

Johnny Cash – Bootleg IV: The Soul of Truth (Sony Legacy, 2012)

johnny cash - bootleg IVA two-disc gospel set comprised of 1975’s A Believer Sings the Truth, snippets of 1984’s I Believe, and choice B-sides from the same era, this fourth installment in the Bootleg series captures my favorite facet of Cash. Though his hymnal stage stands in contrast to the weathered hard-ass Rick Rubin painted him as in his waning years, that baritone sounds like the voice of the Almighty himself. The second disk is the better find as it sports the most unreleased material. The first is notable, however, for appearances from the Carter Family and a country-jazz cover of Billy Joe Shaver’s “I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal.” When the horns kick in  this backsliding non-believer almost thinks about converting. GRADE: A-

Key Track: I’m Just An Old Chunk of Coal” / “Never Grow Old” / “I Was There When It Happened


Sound ‘Round: Nirvana / PJ Harvey

20 years of aggression. 

Nirvana – In Utero (DCG, 1993)

nirvana - in uteroAllow me a head start from the inflated reviews sure to appear when this album gets a customary reissue on its twentieth anniversary. No, it’s not better than Nevermind, and yes, anyone who believes such revisionist history is a contrarian preoccupied with being hip instead of correct. “But it’s so raw and aggressive,” they’ll say before finishing with “and much truer to the band’s original vision.” Why, because it’s perceived as noisier and therefore more edgy? Sorry, I fancy myself as a song man. I prefer melodies over feedback, and so did Kurt. The blistered, and occasionally grating, production is a reaction to the band’s uneasy relationship with stardom. The songwriting, however, is nearly as consistent as its predecessor; the tale of actress Frances Farmer serves as a tragic allegory for Cobain’s ultimate fate, “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter” is the best kind of irony and “Heart Shaped Box” was grunge’s best love song. The size of the riffs may be reduced, and their knack for noise gets in the way towards the end, but the whole thing is saved by the hooks which do as they always did; reveal Cobain to be a calculating pop star. GRADE: A

Key Tracks: All Apologies” / “Pennyroyal Tea” / “Heart Shaped Box

PJ Harvey – Rid of Me (Indigo, 1993)

pj harvey - rid of meBefore Polly Jean conquered bohemia with her greatest album in 2000, and before she became smitten with British folklore and autoharps, she was driven to simply get laid on her own terms. Meshing feminism with riot grrrl angst and an avant-blues gnarl, the torturous and knotty music counteracts my favorite lyrical element, simplicity. Leaving little to the imagination, and with no use for metaphor, her verses are so honest and upfront in their imagery they’re downright jarring at times. “I’ll make you lick my injuries.” “I’ll smooth it nicely / Rub it better ‘til it bleeds.” “Now I’m blind and I’m lame / Left with nothing but his stain.” Certainly not for the Hallmark crowd, but should do fine for any listener diligent enough to sift through the sexual carnage and discover an album more notable for the promise it creates than the results it delivers. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: Legs” / “Rid of Me” / “Rub ‘Til it Bleeds

Sound ‘Round: Sam Baker / Neko Case

Damaged in a beautiful way. 

Sam Baker – Say Grace (self-released)

sam baker - say graceThis Texan folkie should not be alive. Hopscotching around South America as a raft guide, his femoral artery and vein were severed in the 1986 Machu Picchu train bombing which left eight dead and 40 others injured. He miraculously survived, but lost much of his hearing and endured multiple surgeries. His right hand mangled from the carnage, he became a lefty on guitar – making his music hushed, tranquil and rarified. The John Prine comparisons are apt, but Leonard Cohen is more fitting; dry, low-hanging vocals uplifted by tinsel town piano, angelic backing harmonies, rusty cello and rich horns. Lyrically, it’s character studies focused on the down trotted. Some succumb to their circumstances, take the migrant workers who perish in the desert in search of work, while the rest make the best with what they have, a happily married couple who embrace their blemishes to embolden their bond.  Both are treated equally, with poise, eloquence and reverence. Damaged enough to empathize with the meager and the broken, he’s still optimistic about the human spirit, and ever thankful for a life he knows to be all too precious. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: Isn’t Love Great” / “Button By Button” / “Go In Peace”

Neko Case – The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You (ANTI-)

neko case - the worse things getCharming, witty, humorous, independent, spirited, insightful, distinct, personable, there’s plenty she does right. Her most glaring fault, however, has been her melodic inconsistencies. Though she presides over a sizable collection of zippy singles, each of her albums sag eventually – the victims of waning songwriting and lax arrangements. This fourth album, a series of confessionals about the loss of parents with whom she shared a troubled relationship, is her most persistently taut one yet. The buoyant pop bits sparkle as they always have – she riffs off three straight from the beginning. Yet the real improvements come on the slow movers, where her radiant vocal timbre carries the load with graceful ease, softening the jagged honesty of the lyrics – “My mother, she did not love me.” Hyperpersonal, sure. But she defines herself not by her deceased family, but rather a profound sense of individualism and femininity which, ironically enough, is made explicit in a song titled “Man.” “A women’s heart is the watermark,” she declares. “Of which I measure everything.” GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: Man” / “Afraid” / “Night Still Comes