Is a Virtue
Trading Snakeoil for Wolftickets
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.
Live at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge
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.
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
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.
Travels in the South
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.