is a genre often donned by singer-songwriters with an affinity
for classic country music but whose respect for artistry resists
any association with CMT and all that country has become.
However you choose to classify it, Sunset Moon, the
debut solo effort by Railbird drummer Chris Carey, makes no
apologies for the honky-tonk bloodline in its Americana. At
the heart of Carey’s songwriting, and in his rootsy arrangements
of guitar, pedal steel, harmonica and mandolin, there’s the
ethos of the everyman just doing the best he can, a well-worn
sentiment common to much of American music, whether, for you,
it connotes Willie Nelson or Jeff Buckley.
himself covers duties on guitar, piano, drums and harmonica,
while enlisting the help of Saratoga sideman extraordinaire
Tony Markellis on bass and a host of pickers, including his
Railbird bandmates Chris Kyle and Sarah Pedinotti. The end
result is a polished and balanced trip through the sound of
the ’70s. “Nothin’ on My Mind” recalls Led Zeppelin’s “Going
to California,” while “Traveling Song” seems plucked from
a Neil Young guitar book, with a foreword by Don Henley. A
more contemporary referent might be Reid Genauer (of Strangefolk
and Assembly of Dust), in Carey’s ability to spin modern down-home
narratives over a bed of chiming guitars. It’s Carey’s surprisingly
strong voice that carries the album, though, equally comfortable
on the ballad “Angels and Sailors” as the 12-bar shuffle “Freewheelin’”
and the excellent honky-tonk “Light and Wind.”
Moon is undoubtedly an upbeat affair, with tracks like
“Nothin’ on My Mind,” “Freewheelin’” and “Feelin’ Good” befitting
the simple optimism of a sunny spring morning. That’s not
to say, though, that it doesn’t work just as well on a lazy
socks-and-sweaters Sunday morning in January.
Cuddle Magic look a bit like a Northeast version of Broken
Social Scene, the Toronto band/collective who concentrated
the local efforts of diverse musicians like Leslie Feist,
Brendan Canning, and members of Metric and Do Make Say Think.
The band’s 12 members hail from Boston, New York and Philadelphia,
but have their roots in the New England Conservatory, a collaborative
situation that yields a brand of baroque pop both studied
the band’s sophomore effort, took form over the course of
two years and between band members’ obligations toward other
projects. Principal songwriter (and Railbird bassist) Ben
Davis provided the album with the bulk of its material, adapting
his brother Tim’s poetry into lush acoustic arrangements adorned
with strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion. Songs like
“The Packaging” immediately recall Sufjan Stevens in the way
voice and banjo unfold in a humble, effortless 10/8 meter,
cycling to collect support from violin, the rhythm section
and female voice. The abundant use of complex time signatures
on the album is never showy, but instead seems to naturally
support the cadence of Davis’ lyrical and somewhat digressive
prose. Still, when the song reaches an instrumental bridge
that alternates between 5/4 and 4/4, the band prove they can
groove and keep a listener guessing at the downbeat like the
best of progressive jazz groups.
ever stroking their own virtuosity, the band display what
a musical education is good for in the tracks that follow,
cobbling together an immersive long-player from an arsenal
of styles and influences. “Don’t Forget” is a somber Thom
Yorke-ish lament with electronic drums and dubby bass. “Fanfare”
evokes Steve Reich’s The Cave and Van Dyke Parks’ arrangements
for Joanna Newsom’s Ys with skittering string parts
that parrot the confessional lyrics and spare drums that push
the odd meter through controlled tempo changes. Most important,
the album is a collection of incredible pop melodies. Alec
Spiegleman’s “Expectations” is heart-wrenching in a way that
cuts deeper with every listen, his vulnerable vocals gulping
a flat note here and there but never sounding pandering or
cute. “Say When” harnesses similar emotion, pushing the coda
toward a cinematic, post-rock climax that would suit a TV
drama in all the right ways. And the sequencing couldn’t be
better. “In So Far,” a wry bossa nova, runs a tasty horn outro
directly into the slippery Beefheart racket of “Paris/Happydent,”
which itself resolves in a simple, soaring vocal refrain.
few musical offerings in an Internet age that thrives on disposable
ephemera, Picture is less infectious than it is inhabitable.
Each track is at once immediately accessible and affecting,
but also cavernous enough that some exploration is required.
“One Useful Song” voices this intention directly, suggesting
that, if the listener is lost while camping, the physical,
reflective CD may function as more than “musical décor or
sonic petit four” and have some real use. For conventional
listening, though, the music here should alone be plenty useful.
Classic Artie Shaw Victor and Bluebird Sessions
Records’ recent-years policy of reissuing only selected items
from a given recording session has infuriated a few fortissimo
posters on jazz-based Internet message boards, but it gives
us such treasures as the recently issued seven-CD Artie Shaw
set, spanning the years 1938 to 1944, when Shaw and his orchestra
were at the peak of their popularity.
starts with a bang: Shaw’s hit recording of “Begin the Beguine,”
the Cole Porter song that had been deemed unrecordable because
of its unusual length. It was his first session with a newly
formed band on a newly signed contract with Victor Records,
and went on to sell phenomenally.
didn’t come from nowhere. A much-in-demand studio clarinetist
in the ’30s, he first put together a band with strings, a
band that flopped even in the wake of Benny Goodman’s sudden
popularity. He retrenched, redefined and put together “the
loudest goddamn band in the world.” And was off like a shot.
June 1938 Victor session also produced the only recording
featuring the band with vocalist Billie Holiday (“Any Old
Time”), who left shortly thereafter because of a myriad of
racial issues. That vocal is included in the set, but 68 others
were passed over, 43 of them by the reliable but not terribly
jazzy Helen Forrest.
heard those vocals and they’re enjoyable, but the only one
I really miss is Pauline Byrne’s “Gloomy Sunday,” and only
then for its contrast with the nonpareil Billie Holiday version.
Lena Horne’s 1941 sessions are here, more out of historical
than stylistic interest.
proved to be an albatross for Shaw, who wearied of the constant
demand for “Begin the Beguine” and the boorishness of the
jitterbugging fans. He walked off the bandstand one night
in November 1939 and fled to Mexico, but returned a few later
to finish a contractual recording obligation—and produced
another killer hit, “Frenesi,” at a session (with strings,
finally) that also produced a fascinating version of classical
composer Edward MacDowell’s piano sketch “A Deserted Farm,”
not released until 1978 and even then unfairly damned by the
intolerant Gunther Schuller.
was a nice reminder that Shaw’s work can continue to confound
his critics. In 1940, he drew a six-man ensemble from his
orchestra and dubbed it the Gramercy Five, featuring Johnny
Guarneri on (a terrible sounding) harpsichord for a unique
percussive bite. Far more comfortable with brilliant soloists
than was Goodman, Shaw welcomed trumpeter Hot Lips Page into
the band in 1941, and Lips’ vocal on “Blues in the Night”
last big band in this collection was formed during wartime,
and another trumpet star, Roy Eldridge, was featured in recordings
that centered around the best of the standards, including
plenty of Gershwin.
take Ellington’s band as the pinnacle of color and innovation,
then Shaw wasn’t too far behind. Terms like “restless” and
“inventive” have been thrown at the clarinetist since even
before he put down his ax for the last time in 1954, but as
these brilliant recordings attest, they still apply.