Spinning Discs February 2014

by James Cassara

There’s much to cover this month so in order to accommodate as many releases as possible I’ll be keeping my comments brief. Remember the rule: if it’s reviewed here, it’s at least worth a listen or three.

Mutual Benefit

Love’s Crushing Diamond
Other Music Records

It might be faint praise to use terms like temperate or comfortable in reviewing an album but singer/multi-instrumentalist Jordan Lee, who records under the moniker Mutual Benefit, has a way of turning what might be seen as a weakness into a potent weapon.

Blending together folk, psychedelic pop, and experimental recording techniques in ways that would make Sufjan Stevens envious, Lee’s mix of wounded yet hopeful pop can be a lovely tonic for the times. He’s also a keen observer of universal bumps and bruises; much of Love’s Crushing Diamond was written in response to the struggles his inner circle of friends were going through.

On tracks such as “That Light That’s Blinding,” a lovely mutation of plucked banjos and strings played over some gorgeous harmonies, he hits just the right blend of playful over precious. Likewise, on “Strong River”, he mixes wind chimes with strings, creating a surface sheen that could have stepped right out of The Beach Boys Friends album.

Sure the project could have used a bit more oomph; but tension and dynamics has never been the province of what is loosely defined as freak folk. Besides, at a scant eight songs, Love’s Crushing Diamond blows in and out like the cool breeze it is. ***

Los Lobos

Disconnected in New York City
429 Records

It took Los Lobos more than three decades before making a live album but in short order they’ve released a bevy of them. That shouldn’t surprise anyone with even a passing interest in the band: for all their strengths as recording artists—and Los Lobos have a catalog second to none—to see them live on stage can be a surreal experience.

Disconnected in New York City is their fourth live album since 2005. Recorded during an acoustic show at the City Winery, it demonstrates the band’s strengths as songwriters and arrangers, playfully recasting old favorites and giving new life to a few lesser known tracks.

While the stripped down setting takes the edge off David Hidalgo’s piercing solos—he truly is one of the most underrated guitarists in rock music—it places Cesar Rosas’ lead vocals and Steve Berlin’s saxophone front and center, giving ample room for some tasty improvisation.

Likewise, with the back and forth between percussionists Bugs Gonzalez and Camilo Quinones lesser known songs such as “Tears of God” and “Oh Yeah” are forcefully extended, squeezing out every bit of energy they contain. Even “La Bamba,” a song that surely suffers from over familiarity, sounds fresh and reenergized.

Forty years into their amazing career, Los Lobos can still toss out a trick or two, reminding us just how innovative and resilient they are. A genuine musical treasure that just gets better with age. ***1/2

ForeverlyNorah Jones and Billie Joe Armstrong

Reprise Records

In light of the recent death of Phil the offering of another tribute to the Everly Brothers seems only proper, and while Foreverly was recorded months before his passing the timing could not be more poignant.

The list of artists who drew inspiration from Phil and Don is both expansive and telling. They truly were “The Beatles’ Beatles” in how much they influenced the songwriting and harmonies of John and Paul and so many artists who followed.

Foreverly is certainly not the most originally conceived Everly Brothers tribute—as recently as 2005 Will Oldham and Dawn McCarthy released their own good times collection of Everly tunes—but unlike most such efforts it recreates a single Everly Brothers’ album, in this case their 1958 standard Songs Our Daddy Taught Us, in its entirety.

Recorded near the start of their career, it was one of rock’s first roots albums, as Phil and Don set aside rock and roll to explore the music they’d grown up hearing. And like that album, Foreverly is an understated, sweetly tinged affair that speaks volumes in its simplicity.

With her sideshow band Little Willies, Norah Jones has previously ventured in such turf, but for Armstrong this is strange territory indeed. He’s long shown an affinity for 1960’s garage rock but in terms of Green Day, the 1950s never existed, which works to their advantage.

None of these songs, some of which date back to the 30s and 40s, are sacred to either performer; allowing Armstrong and Jones to play it lose. They certainly emulate the two part Everly harmonies (and their voices match surprisingly well) but give such gems as “Lightning Express” and “Long Time Gone” a swagger that serves them well. In this regard they’ve learned their lesson well.

Just as Phil and Don were never beholden to singing these songs the way their daddy taught them, choosing instead to resurrect them in ways that met their needs, so too do Norah and Billie Joe go a long way towards making them their own which is exactly why Foreverly works so well; making it the unassuming joy it is. ***1/2

Raising Caine

Raisin’ Caine
Raising Caine Music

This terrific Asheville based band, the brainchild of vocalist Caine McDonald, might be broadly defined as “Americana Roots Country” but what specifically draws their music to my ears is the plucky nature of their songs, hard luck and hard living stories that, when set to some of the most sprightly melodies this side of Bakersfield, CA., never seem to waver or wallow.

“Come Back Lord” might be the words of a man “down on his bended knee” but the music rollicks along with such unfettered passion that it’s more a joyful romp than mournful plea. “That Morning in Johnson” is prime country storytelling—in this case the time honored tale of a man on the wrong end of love—that when done right never grows old.

McDonald’s voice has that worn and weary tone that fits the material to a “T”, while the band, particularly Jack-of-all-trades James Keane, and pedal steel maestro Matt Smith, anchor the material in tradition and taste. There’s not a weak number to be heard.

McDonald’s lyrics are precise and evocative while his knack for a catchy phrase is unerring. That, and the uniformly exceptional quality of the musicianship, makes for a disc that immediately caught my attention and has grown only stronger with repeated listens. ****

Michael Lee Yonkers

Self Titled
Drag City Music

Originally recorded in 1972 and released two years later, Michael Lee Yonkers is justifiably revered by cultish collectors and aficionados of the obscure. This definitive album by the Minnesotan recluse is lovingly cleaned up (but thankfully not too much) and reissued by the good folks at Drag City Music.

Yonkers self-titled 1974 release—13 tracks recorded directly to tape—is as underground as it gets. It’s a one man affair with Yonkers playing all the instruments (although there are a few uncredited background vocals) that leans heavily towards the mid-western country music that Yonkers likely heard on local AM radio. It glides from the rockabilly swing of “An Easy Goin’ Country Guy” to the slow stride heartbreak of “My Sally” with disarming ease. And if the gleefully absurd “Funboots” didn’t have a huge impact on such pyschobilly proponents as Webb Wilder or Omar and the Howlers then I’ll eat those very boots.

Other tracks find Yonkers in a more melancholic space, ruminating on the fame that by then he’d no doubt realized had passed him by; they’re equally charming in their off handed nature, unassuming tunes that reflect the times. The second of the trio of his albums to be issued by Drag City (Lonely Gold came out in 2010) Michael Lee Yonkers was DYI long before the movement gained a certain hip creed.

Borders of My Mind is the next of his albums to receive the royal treatment and, based on this delight, should be one to watch out for. ****

Bruce Piephoff

Soft Soap Purrings
Speranza Recordings

Greensboro based singer/songwriter Bruce Piephoff has released such consistently strong albums that there’s almost a tendency to take them for granted. Soft Soap Purrings (a decidedly southern term describing “flattery intended to procure a favor”) is his 21st album since 1988, giving you some idea of how prolific he is. It’s also one of his best, a trimmed down dozen songs that demonstrate the range and assurance of his talent.

The title track sets the stage; a six minute word intensive ramble that moves ahead with the steady propulsion of a steam engine. It’s a great example of Piephoff’s knack for connecting seemingly disparate phrases in ways that seem wholly unexpected but always make sense.

“Maps on My Taps” is the artist at his most buoyant and playful; a Buck Owens like ditty that would have fit right in with any top notch Hee Haw episode. Aided by a lovely counter vocal courtesy of Claire Holley, it glides along at breakneck speed. And who can resist a lyric as delightfully convoluted as “trying to sort out the coulda, shoulda, woulda, the bad times just make the good times gooder”? Certainly not I!

Other highlights include the remorseful “Lost Boy” and a Dylan-like “Open the Window.” Even the oddly alluring “Chocolate Moose” with its intentionally hokey lyrics and Holiday Inn lounge arrangement works, largely because it’s so out of character for Piephoff that you cannot help but laugh along with the joke.

If you’re unfamiliar with Bruce Piephoff’s stellar catalog of recordings, Soft Soap Purrings is as good a place as any to start. But be forewarned: they can be mightily addictive, but as afflictions go, one could do far worse. ****