Monthly Archives: September 2015

Sound ‘Round: Nellie McKay / Veruca Salt

Girls just wanna have an equal say

Nellie McKay – My Weekly Reader (429)

Nellie McKay - My Weekly ReaderTo understand the gist of this Manhattan songstress, dig “Mother of Pearl,” an ode to progressivism and Tin Pan Alley that kicks off her 2007 mini-album, Obligatory Villagers. “Feminists don’t have a sense of humor,” she begins. From there, she mocks those who objectify women and/or value the second amendment over equal wages. This covers album, her second in as many outings, brings the ‘60s to 2015 and continues her knack for political satire. However, the laughs are more subtle. The scoundrel jaded by wealth in “Sunny Afternoon” finds a new home America’s second gilded age, and she’s dead-on when quoting Alan Price: “We all want justice but you’ve got to have the money to buy it.” No coincidence that nugget of truth is followed by “Murder in My Heart for the Judge,” which features an extended outro composed of one-line protests: “Hands up!” “I can’t breathe!” and my favorite, “I still can’t believe I have to put up with this shit.” Not everything is tongue-in-cheek. Her rendition of “If I Fell” is charming for its sense of ease. Ditto the takes on The Small Faces, Moby Grape and Jefferson Airplane which prove music for music’s sake has its own rewards. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: Sunny Afternoon” / “Murder in My Heart for Judge” / “Itchycoo Park

Veruca Salt – Ghost Notes (El Camino)

Veruca Salt - Ghost NotesFemininity in pop music has become so vogue, Billboard often reads like an All-Star team of Cosmo cover girls. Guitar-centric girl power on Top 40, however, has gone the way of Courtney Love. So on their first album together since an acidic breakup in 1998, Louise Post and Nina Gordon carry on paying the bills one power chord at a time. Their melodies are too slick for Riot Grrrl purists who disregard lyrics that are more personal than political. But cherishing womanly bonds ain’t a bad way of expressing feminism. Nearly every one of these 13 songs finds Post and Gordon singing to each other, reconciling their past while reaffirming their kinship. Not everything comes up roses. “Black and Blonde” is literally about the hotel-room fistfight which caused their separation. But, as most pros do, they let the hooks do the bulk of the work. Rarely does a chorus miss the mark, and their interplay on guitar is as satisfying as their harmonies. Spurring them on is a rhythm section composed of two men. They’re not just feminists, they’re equal opportunity employers. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: Eyes On You” / “The Gospel According to Saint Me” / “Black and Blonde

This article appeared in The Monitor on September 25, 2015

Sound ‘Round: Boz Scaggs / Yo La Tengo

Doing well with the words of others

Boz Scaggs – A Fool to Care (429)

boz scaggs - a fool to careHere is an album that’s immense for its simplicity and wonderful for its laid back brilliance. This covers album won’t get him off the circuit of C-list classic rock acts, but it puts his easygoing sensibilities to good use. Scaggs’ throaty tenor, though weathered by his 71 years of age, remains elastic and allows him to shift moods on a whim. He keeps things bar-band chic during the early going, reworking Ted Daffan’s 1940 hit on the title track before a duet with Bonnie Raitt on the album’s only original composition — dueling guitar solos included. From there, it’s onto various renditions of soul, pop and folk numbers which play up his genteel romanticism. “Full of Fire,” an Al Green standard, morphs from a lustful dance groove into a celebration of life-long love, and his take on The Impressions’ “I’m So Proud” praises a woman who could do just fine on her own, thank you very much. Every track, including the ballads, radiates with a pleasurable sense of immediacy. He’s always played it cool, but at long last he’s dropped the cornball routine. Don’t be fooled by his demure demeanor, however. This is all killer. GRADE: A

Key Tracks: A Fool to Care” / “The Last Tango of 16th Street” / “Rich Woman

Yo La Tengo – Stuff Like That There (Matador)

Yo La Tengo - Stuff Like That ThereAlbum number 14 continues their trend of forsaking basement-friendly feedback for the hushed haze of tranquility. A hodgepodge of covers and new material, this is the kind of worthwhile endeavor that too often results in another hackneyed exercise in hipster twee. But husband-wife duo Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley have no need to be cute and are too smart to mistake irony for cleverness. So take Hubley at face value when she strips the twang from Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” without betraying the narrative of the crestfallen lover. Though her voice rarely goes above a whisper, she manages to rid “Friday I’m in Love” of Robert Smith’s insufferable dreariness. Kaplan does well enough when the goal is sadness with a beat, but I’m glad she’s there on the arrhythmic duets which uplift his down-in-the-mouth tendencies. It’s fitting the best tunes center on the simple ways in which eternal love is reaffirmed — as if a friendly, “How are you?” packs the same emotional wallop as marital declarations. Tender in modesty, delightful in its pleasantries, they wear straight-faced whimsy well. So much so, you’d swear they were pulling a joke by opening the whole thing with Darlene McCrea’s “My Heart’s Not in It.GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: Friday I’m in Love” / “Rickety” / “All Your Secrets

This article appeared in The Monitor on September 18, 2015. 

Sound ‘Round: Ashley Monroe / Maddie & Tae

Strong femininity from South of the Mason-Dixon

Ashley Monroe – The Blade (Warner Bros. Nashville)

Ashely Monroe - The BladeIt’s fitting the tell-all song is “Dixie,” wherein she says adios to the Bible Belt and the poisonous coal mines that killed her daddy. “When I cross that line then I’ll sing a brand new song,” Monroe recites. Well aware the corporate country music machine has no place for an artist who thrives on subtlety and prefers whiskey to John 3:16, she cuts her ties from the get-go. “I’m better moving on than going back / I’ll ride this train ‘til it runs out of track,” goes the chorus on the opening “On to Something Good.” From there, it’s a series of understated country folk songs that get by one small hook at a time. She maximizes her diminutive ways on “Buried Your Love Alive,” a swampy blues ballad that finds her moving on from a bad romance in bittersweet fashion. Love on the rocks is the prevailing theme here. “Bombshell” is about the fallacy of letting someone down easy, and the title track captures the one-sided nature of a breakup. It’s O.K. to get bored, almost every song suffers from mid-tempo sameness and the analogies don’t always click. But her small-time charm is always preferable to Music City’s bombast. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: Dixie” / “Buried Your Love Alive” / “Weight of the Load

Maddie & Tae – Start Here (Dot Records)

Maddie & Tae - Start HereThey went No. 1 with last summer’s “Girl in a Country Song,” an anti-bro anthem which rightly sends up Nashville’s obsession with tight jeans and tanned skin. “We ain’t a cliché / That ain’t no way to treat a lady,” they warn. That protest jingle is present on this full-length debut along with three other songs which made up last year’s self-titled EP. Most of the seven new tracks here lean soft and slow, a pity as the ballads diminish their sassy side. I’d swear they were offering an olive branch to the good ol’ boys club were it not for “Shut Up and Fish,” wherein a one-track-minded city slicker receives his just reward upon ruining an afternoon date with ulterior motives. There’s an excess of corn, no doubt, but buried within the schmaltz are endearing nuggets of charm. The cosmopolitan “Waiting on a Plane” finds them bidding farewell to Main Street while the finale simultaneously bemoans and embraces adulthood. The love songs are as sincere as can be for a pair of 20-year-old starlets adjusting to life on the road, but the musical execution seems obligatory rather than inspired. Still, I’d choose them at their most bland over riding shotgun with Luke Bryan. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: Girl in a Country Song” / “Shut Up and Fish” / “Your Side of Town

This article originally appeared in The Monitor on Sept. 11, 2015

Sound ‘Round: Carly Rae Jepsen / Miguel

Canoodling in their own way

Carly Rae Jepsen – Emotion (School Boy / Interscope)

Carly Rae Jepsen - Emoition

Prognosticators call this the pop album of the year, an honor she wins by default because a) it’s been a woeful year for pop music and b) Taylor Swift’s album came out in 2014. Semantics aside, this comeback is indeed a sweet piece of bubblegum. Jepsen will likely never match the ubiquity of “Call Me Maybe,” a summer jam that’s as hooky as it is self-aware, but this follow-up demonstrates her earnest attempt at a repeat. Assisting her is a battalion of 17 producers and 28 co-songwriters ranging from hit-maker Greg Kurstin to Vampire Weekend’s Rostan Batmanglij. With such a mammoth and eclectic payroll, it’s impressive how cohesive the whole thing sounds. Each track tips its cap to the schmaltz of ‘80s era synth, an approach which plays up her girl-next-door charm. But subtle brushes of EDM modernize her retro leanings, hinting at her understated earthly needs. Lyrically, she details X-rated desires with PG verses, befitting of a world where stealing a midnight kiss under a streetlight equals the exhilaration of a one-night encounter. She celebrates hopeless romanticism on the opener replete with a lovesick saxophone flourish. The rest is more of the same. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: Run Away With Me” / “I Really Like You” / “Warm Blood

Miguel – Wildheart (RCA)

Miguel - WildheartHe’s bashed Frank Ocean on several occasions because he mistakenly equates vulnerability with weakness. Then it’s no coincidence the worst of these bedroom jams reek of tasteless chest-thumping and casual chauvinism. The stale metaphors of “the valley” — bet you can’t guess what “painting hills” refers to — mistakes pleasure for power and relegates a faceless woman to a mere collection of body parts. Things don’t fare much better on the aptly titled “N.W.A.,” which is as misogynistic as anything Dr. Dre ever concocted. “Got you walkin’ with a gansta lean,” he brags. Gross. That the better material plays up his tender side is an ironic twist I doubt he grasps. Though his overly-masculine come-ons are a turn off, the morning after of “coffee” relishes a soft cuddle at the break of dawn. He goes deeper on the track where he ponders his Hispanic and African-American heritage, questioning what it means to be normal. Though he doesn’t find an answer, he does find a worthwhile sense of rhythm, which he rides all the way to the finale featuring Lenny Kravitz – another lovesick horndog with a penchant for so-so pillow talk. Find better role models, kiddo. GRADE: B+

Key Tracks: coffee” / “what’s normal anyway” / “leaves

This article appeared in Sept. 4 issue of The Monitor