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Patience Is a Virtue

Gary Jules
Trading Snakeoil for Wolftickets (Universal)

By now, you’ve probably heard the quietly brooding cover version of Tears for Fears’ 1983 hit “Mad World” that’s been making the rounds on alternative radio of late. The track, a collaboration between Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter Gary Jules and composer-pianist Michael Andrews, originally was featured in the cult-favorite film Donnie Darko, but in a gigantic upturn on the industry’s battle against downloading, peer-to-peer file sharing actually turned the song into a word-of-mouth (or word-of-Web) success, leading to tremendous European radio support and, eventually, catapulting the song to huge retail success overseas. Back home, Universal has just reissued Trading Snakeoil for Wolftickets, Jules’ independent release from 2002, apparently hoping for a similar result, and with any luck, they’ll get it.

It would be a shame if Jules were to become defined by a cover tune, because he is a truly fine songwriter in his own right. He’s been toiling on the listening-room circuit for a decade, and it’s heartening to see him finally get his due. Granted, this kind of narrative-driven folk-pop would probably be a better fit on a 1972 AM-radio dial than with the current crop of self-serious woe-is-me singer-songwriters, but with the successes of Norah Jones and David Gray looming large, there may be hope after all.

Most of Wolftickets maintains an intimate vibe that suggests a mastery of craft and recognition of niche, mostly due to its straightforward approach. Michael Andrews hangs his hat all over this record, adding much of the instrumentation, in addition to having recorded and produced the bulk of the tracks. Clearly producing from the vantage point of a songwriter and performer rather than a “studio guy,” Andrews never oversteps the boundaries of the songs, letting them breathe and speak for themselves. A mandolin here, a harmonica there, a little electric guitar and brushed snare drum, and there you have it. The most filled-out songs—“DTLA (Downtown Los Angeles),” “Patchwork G” (golly, that one sounds like a CSNY tune) and “Barstool”—are augmented by vocal harmonies, piano and sturdy kit drumming, and that’s about it.

Jules’ voice is a quiet, vulnerable tenor that calls quickly to mind apparent kindred spirits Cat Stevens, Nick Drake and the late Elliott Smith. “Lucky” delves especially deep into Smith territory, with its fingerpicked guitar, whispery doubled vocals and the lyric, “You can’t save me from myself, you can’t save her, you’re lucky if you save yourself, do yourself a favor.” Lyrically, he gets a bit Dylanesque at times on some tracks, but mostly in a mildly coffeehouse-folkie-hipster kind of way, rather than being pretentious or word-salady. Sure, “Umbilical Town” practically borrows its melody from “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” but its lyrics (“There ain’t no consolation prize, there is no backdoor to innocence”) have a wistfulness that Dylan himself has rarely touched upon.

The penultimate track, “Barstool” (reprised from Jules’ 1998 debut Greetings From the Side) is a loping waltz that places you belly up to the hardwood, salivating for the next round, as the old man on the next stool dispenses such time-proven advice as “Love is for sissies, it’s whiskey that makes you a man.” It hangs in heavy contrast to the album’s closer, “Mad World,” which barely finds a sliver of light through the cracks in the lid. Thankfully, now that Jules has a bona fide hit on his hands, the future’s looking awfully bright.

—John Brodeur

James Carter
Live at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge (Warner Bros.)

You won’t find saxophonist James Carter under Warner Bros. artists because he’s signed to Columbia. You also won’t find him under Atlantic Records, where he made some of his best recordings, including his audacious 2000 pairing, “Layin’ in the Cut/Chasin’ the Gypsy.” So it might behoove you to find this one-off, apparently a salvage job from the dying days of his Atlantic contract, before it goes out of print.

Live at Baker’s Lounge is a great album, showcasing not only Carter’s eclecticism but also his sense of tradition. Carter isn’t the only sax star here: During the three days in June 2001 when this was recorded at the legendary Detroit jazz club, Carter was joined by other sax masters Franz Jackson, David Murray and the redoubtable bop icon Johnny Griffin. Which makes for heady blowing on tracks like Oscar Pettiford’s “Tricotism,” George Duvivier’s smoking “Foot Pattin’” and a biting updating of Eddie Harris’ great, paradigmatically funky “Freedom Jazz Dance.”

Produced with striking clarity by Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun, a legendary hipster who surely did it for love, this leisurely, ridiculously catchy recording evokes the great live bebop platters of the late ’50s and ’60s, when Sonny Rollins laid down indelible tracks for Blue Note, Griffin dueled with Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis on dates for Prestige, and Coltrane waxed eloquent and outside for Impulse! Not to say this is retro; cuts like Jimmy Forrest’s “Soul Street” and a lazy take on Gary McFarland’s “Sack Full of Dreams” are full of unexpected phrasing, and the interplay among the sax lineup is a marvel. Having storied Detroit drummer Richard “Pistol” Allen lay down a groove that organist Gerard Gibbs can embellish (check out his licks on the Forrest cut) is a bonus.

Vivid, kinetic, varied, Live at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge makes you wish you’d been there. It also makes you sad that Atlantic and Warner Bros. have dropped their jazz divisions. Records this good contradict that cold, economic decision.

—Carlo Wolff

Chris Stamey
Travels in the South (Yep Roc)

Chris Stamey’s last album of new material under solely his own name was Fireworks, which itself was delayed a number of years before finding release in 1991. That was the same year in which he reunited with erstwhile bandmate from The dBs, Peter Holsapple, for Mavericks. In the interim he’s found a more quiet success as producer and engineer with his own studio in his hometown of Chapel Hill, N.C.

One of the strengths of this set, recorded over the past few years, is its use of a core band (augmented by assorted guests, including Ryan Adams, Ben Folds and Don Dixon). It’s almost impossible to not look back a couple decades and see an artist’s career trajectory in relation to the early works that came to define them. The dBs classic first two albums (Stands for Decibels and Repercussion) benefited from the contrasting songwriting inclinations of Stamey and Holsapple. Their striking differences made for a resilient whole. Stamey’s always enjoyed gently tipping over the apple cart. Sometimes it’s just the combination of a voice that mixes everyman ease with lyrics built from surprise slivers of conversational phrases, wedded to ’60s-fueled pop sensibilities—and when he adheres to that he’s at his best. On Travels in the South, those would include the carousing opener “14 Shades of Green” and the delicate “And I Love Her” (bonus points for making use of the fact that song titles can’t be copyrighted). However, when he sets aside his own fractured directness in favor of levels of poetic obfuscation, things turn sluggish. So, as with previous Stamey albums, you’ve got to take the hamstrung with the winningly transcendent.

—David Greenberger

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