Spinning Discs

by James Cassara

Welcome back to another go around at sharing some of my favorite recent discs. Among this month’s offerings are new albums by familiar voices and a semi-forgotten effort by a comedic mastermind. As always be sure to legally purchase these albums from your local record store of choice. Without them Asheville would be a little less cool of a town.

Loudon Wainwright III

Older Than My Old Man Now
2nd Story Sound

Loudon Wainwright III has now officially lived longer than did his own father, who in 1988 died from colon cancer at the age of 63. Such bitter irony has clearly been weighing heavily on the younger Wainwright’s mind, and while he has never shied away from melancholic thoughts and ruminations of mortality neither has Loudon ever constructed an album so fully absorbed with them.

Of course being who (and what) he is Wainwright does so with his familiar sense of crank, wise ass, and at times mean-spiritedness: He may be funny as all get out but I’d hate to ever land on his bad side. Having said that, Older than My Old Man Now, his first album since the career spanning boxed set Forty Odd Years, is as much about family, and the unpredictable knots that bind us together, as it is about the death that finally tears us apart. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than on “The Here and Now” in which Wainwright is joined by all four of his children (Rufus being the most well known) along with ex-wife Suzzy Roche and current wife Ritamarie Kelly.

Augmented by guitarist John Scofield, it’s as jazzy as Wainwright has ever sounded, and far and away the best track here. Elsewhere Wainwright evokes a series of spoken word recordings by his father (a well known columnist for LIFE Magazine) which is both touching and in some regards a bit morbid, making this collection the aural equivalent of a photo album.

“All in a Family,” recorded with daughter Lucy, highlights just how important the linkage of relations is to him but Wainwright’s casual delivery almost undermines the vitality of his sentiments. That is an ongoing problem with the album: for all its lyrical and conceptual heft Older than My Old Man Now seems remarkably lightweight, as if Wainwright has accepted the inevitable softness of age.

“If families didn’t break apart/I suppose there’d be no need for art,” he tells us. But at times it all seems a bit too forced and convenient. Like the unspoken disagreements that hover around the edges of any family gathering, the essence of what should be revealed never is. Which is a shame, as there are moments in which Older Than My Old Man Now comes *this* close to being the sort of later career masterpiece I’d like to think Loudon Wainwright still has within him. As it is it comes across as an opportunity missed, a record undone by its own counterfeit bravado and casual assemblage. **1/2

Sam Phillips

Solid State: Songs from the Long Play
Little Box Records

Sam Phillips’ obvious disdain with the larger labels that have consistently undercut her career is well noted. Leaving them behind – and as part and parcel former husband/producer T Bone Burnett – has re-energized the frighteningly talented Ms. Phillips. The forty odd songs she’s released since the break, available via online subscription as a series of download EPs, have been consistently groundbreaking, even as they’ve ultimately played to her core base.

Solid State, a 13-song summary of that output, is the first physical record she’s released in half a decade. It’s also wonderful, a giddy romp through heartbreak, the insecurity of approaching middle age, and a blueprint for how one lurches into the world of digital dating and record making.

From the less than a minute long opener “Tell Me” to the more thematically fleshed out “Magic for Everybody” and “Lever Pulled Down,” Phillips sounds nervously relaxed (not the oxymoron you might assume) while demonstrating with certainty her uncanny knack for feisty pop arrangements that bring substance to sheen.

So while I love being one of the few on my block to marvel at the artistry of Sam Phillips I’d also love to see her gather just a portion of the acclaim and prosperity she deserves. Here’s hoping her re-entry into the world of hold-it-in-your-hands music (even though the CD sleeve for Solid State looks and feels el cheapo) is the first of many.

A deluxe boxed set of her post big label years, along with a few of her early demos and stray efforts, would make a welcome addition to anyone’s record shelf. ****

Ernie Kovacs

Percy Dovetonsils Thpeaks
Omnivore Recordings

In celebration of the deliriously weird humor of the great Ernie Kovacs, Omnivore Recordings, in conjunction with his estate, are assembling a series of releases and reissues that should go a long way towards reinstating Kovacs as one of the great comedic geniuses of our time. The plan is to eventually make available everything from the Tony Award pairing of Kovacs and his wife, singer/entertainer Edie Adams. The two married in 1954 and remained together until his tragic death in a 1962 automobile accident.

The first such release is the marvelous Percy Dovetonsils Thpeaks, a previously unreleased comedy concept album (long before such things became fashionable) originally recorded a year before his passing. It features his best-known and beloved character, the martini swilling and lisp poet Dovetonsils whose mawkish poetry was a favorite of Kovacs’ television shows.

The album was originally recorded for an independent record label before legal entanglements derailed the project. It was briefly given a vinyl issue some forty years ago and has remained out of print since. During that time the reel had been thought to be lost; it was only recently discovered by archivist and Kovacs scholar Ben Model. After hearing Kovacs discuss the record in a CBC Canada television interview, Model was able to reconstruct the project as Kovacs had intended.

Of course the material is brilliant; politically incorrect by today’s standards (but in no way offensive or hurtful) and replete with the sort of verbal gymnastics that Kovacs could so readily muster. Contemporary comics should take note. It’s a perfect complement to the recently released 6-DVD box set, The Ernie Kovacs Collection, and what is likely only the first of many more to come. The project will no doubt take time, as Model and others pour through thousands of hours of tape, but the Kovacs estate is invested for the long haul.

Which is great news indeed; I never dreamt this material would see the light of day, and can only rejoice at its release. To quote from Kovacs’ own signature send off, “It’s been real.” *****

Bonnie Raitt

Slipstream
Redwing Records

It’s hard to quibble with Bonnie Raitt’s well deserved status as a darling of the music press but a more critical observation reveals a career that has been wildly uneven. She’s often followed a string of sturdy releases with the over produced and lightweight efforts – which almost often sold better than the good ones – that have dogged her work, albums that found her perilously close to becoming a scarlet-haired feminine counterpart to Phil Collins. Thankfully Slipstreamfalls on the right side of that equation, one of those albums that remind us how, when the material is strong and production righteous, fine Raitt can be.

Produced by the uber talented Joe Henry, whose touch seems to always elevate good to great, the album features among others a pair of Henry’s own songs, along with two delicious late era Dylan tunes (“Million Miles” and “Standing in Your Doorway”). And like Dylan, Raitt’s voice has become more seasoned and inimitable.

She’s never been more in control of her lower range and while the high notes have lost some of their sweetness the bitter suits her just fine; she can still command a devastating fury coupled with real tenderness.

On the musical side guitarist Bill Frisell appears on a trio of songs (both Dylan’s and “You Can’t Fail Me Now”, a terrific collaboration with Loudon Wainwright III). The back and forth between Frisell’s signature sound and Raitt’s own wicked nasty slide work is mesmerizing.

Henry’s own go-to band of Patrick Warren, Jay Bellerose, and Greg Leisz have rarely sounded more alert, providing the deliberate, warm affluence that has become his production trademark. While she was working on this record, Raitt, in a fit of creative propulsion, recorded a counter album with her own backing band of guitarist George Marinelli, drummer Ricky Fataar, keyboardist Mike Finnigan, and bassist James Hutchinson.

If the sound of her voice and the glowing choice of material here is any indication, that record should be nothing less than killer. In the meanwhile Slipstream is by no means a holding pattern, but rather the tip of what promises to be a stunning and revelatory iceberg. ****

Lyle Lovett

Release Me
Curb Records

For the past quarter century Lyle Lovett has been an integral part of Curb Records (as well as their partner label Lost Highway) and while the relationship has had its rough patches for the most part it has benefited both parties involved. With that contract now winding down, and Lovett making no secret of his desire to become a truly independent artist, he delivers this subtly-as-a-flying-mallet titled effort.

As if that weren’t enough, the cover, with the trussed up and hung to dry singer peering stoically into the camera, should drive home the point. In many ways it sums up Lovett’s career. The one time quirky country star has spent his post Julia Roberts years (you do remember they were once married, right?) as an amiable roots artist; not nearly so exciting as he once was but at least an artist you could bank on. Until now.

With scant few originals and a selection of uninspired cover tunes, Release Me smacks of contractual debt, a kiss off to the label he’ll soon leave behind. I could have easily lived without another version of that stellar date rape ‘classic’ “Baby It’s Cold Outside” while Lovett’s reimagining of Chuck Berry’s “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” lacks entirely the sexual propulsion of the original. And while it’s good to see the range of Lovett’s musical influences (he’s always been equally adept singing differing styles) but here the lack of creative arrangements make everything sound evenly dull.

The only bright light is “Night’s Lullaby”, a nicely done campfire moment made even better by the graceful harmonies of Sean and Sara Watkins. I could go on, but I won’t. Lovett is too fine an artist to excoriate, even as Release Me bores us to tears.

Here’s hoping that once he becomes the truly independent voice he longs to be, Lyle Lovett will again remind us that he’s one of the few unique voices of his era. If this stilted mess serves no other purpose than to give him a much needed kick in the rear then I’m okay with that. *1/2

Lynne Taylor

Barfly
Good Dirt Records

Sometimes staying away from the thing you love (even if it loves you back) can be good for you. Such is the case with Nashville-based Americana artist Lynn Taylor, former singer with the ragtag string band Felix Wiley who has spent the past decade “raising a family, starting a business, and doing the everyday things of life.”

The time away has served Taylor well, as his 2009 return to live performing has resulted in Barfly, a listener friendly, mostly live in the studio album of his newest batch of songs. With nearly every track recorded in one or two takes there’s an undeniable sense of spontaneity and deliberate casualness.

There are a few miscues, misleads, and even some sound bleed that are all part of the charm. Barfly is a low fidelity effort in the truest sense of the word, although a few dollars sprung on a more attractive sleeve cover would have been wisely spent.

As to the songs themselves, such modest homespun delights as the travelogue “Beef Boy Jack & Mississippi John” or the family oriented “She Had a Laugh” reminds me a lot of early John Prine with a touch of Guy Clark with his East Tennessee by way of Louisiana twang suiting the material well. Taylor, the son of a preacher (there are more than a few biblical allusions found herein) spent a number of years opening for artists ranging from John Hartford to the Drive-By Truckers.

It’s obvious he learned a thing or two about life by hanging with these guys (not to mention a stint with Ralph Stanley), which adds up to a modest dozen song collection that reminds us of the virtues of keeping it simple.***