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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Shawn Colvin: All Fall Down

The singer-songwriter Shawn Colvin is blessed with a wondrous voice – a clear but distinctive, confessional but ringing instrument that lends all her music a signature sound of hip intimacy. However, her best work is less about her performances than about the stories she tells and how she matches them to bracing, unique melodies. Her best record is still 1996’s A Few Small Repairs, which won Grammys and leveraged Colvin’s pop instincts such that she no longer seemed like a folk singer and more like the adult version of a star. That was certainly a grown-up hit record: an album about the bitterness and sadness of going through a divorce and maybe one of the best on that topic since Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks.

All Fall Down is another break-up album, but one softened and mediated by time. Colvin is in her mid-fifties, and her response to romantic failure now is less angry and invigorating than it is sad and resigned. Rather than kick her betrayer out of the house, as her narrator did in the rockin’ “Get Out of This House” from ’96, the opening/title track on All Fall Down simply finds the narrator shaking her head at the sad truth that, “The best of ’em wind up / Sweepin’ dirt off the street / And the worst of ’em end up / Right back up on their feet.” Not that “All Fall Down” doesn’t have punch, but it’s a slap that sounds like Colvin wants to give herself for being too na├»ve.

The blame also goes back to one of Colvin’s protagonists on “Knowing What I Know Now”, which features a soulful arrangement that takes perfect advantage of the production team. The guitarist and mastermind is the great Buddy Miller, who sings the killer low harmony part here. The rest of the core band is Victor Kraus on bass as well as jazz-Americana guitar hero Bill Frisell and the jazz drummer Brian Blade – with the whole shebang recorded down in Nashville. As Colvin sings, “Would I ask a seeing man to go blind? / Would I ask a sane man to lose his mind? / Could I expect you to come back somehow? / Knowing what I know now?”, a metallic-sounding Wurlitzer electric piano also fills the sad, painful space. It’s a brilliant track.

Read my my full PopMatters review here: Shawn Colvin: All Fall Down

Monday, June 25, 2012

Mindy Smith: Mindy Smith

Mindy Smith is country singer for you folks (you know who you are) who just don’t like country music. I guess that makes her “alt-country”, whatever that means. She is from Nashville these days, but her roots are on Long Island, NY, and her sound is mostly devoid of that distinctive country twang. Maybe that makes her more of a folk singer—like a Lucy Kaplansky or Shawn Colvin.

But Smith’s approach on her fifth recording, Mindy Smith, is bathed in the textures and flavors of country music, even if Smith continues to develop an identity that is eclectic in influence and approach. But because she is a storyteller as a songwriter, and because the instrumentation here favors pedal steel and acoustic textures, Smith remains that elusive thing: a rootsy country artist who can harness a non-country audience. Or, as Duke Ellington liked to say, she is “beyond category”. And glorious.

Mindy Smith is the artist’s first disc in three years and her first not on Vanguard Records. 2009’s Stupid Love put Smith’s bell-clear singing voice in front of a band with more of a pop-rock sound—some keyboard sounds, some tastefully fuzzed guitar, a more slap-happy backbeat on the drums—and made the case that Smith is a perfectly viable not-country singer. Which she is…except where her confident and rich style seemed slightly stodgy on tracks that might have done well with more vocal flash.

And so the new record is a heartfelt—and wise—return to her country sound. The band plays with bounce and ache rather than pop polish, and Smith responds by delivering a series of coolly soaring vocals on original songs that deserve the find performances. The powerful punch of her pop songs is still intact on many of these new tracks, but they don’t sound like they are striving for anything other than pure expression.

A tune like “Pretending the Stars” has everything a pop song could want—a propulsive groove, a story about cruising in a car looking for a sense of release, a sultry minor-mode guitar hook, and then a chorus that sounds like a good friend you want to see again and again. But the song is also bathed in the nuance of a great country song, particularly a lovely harmony part that no pop song would bother with in 2012. “Sober” works the same way—using the sound of a big-guitar rock song to underpin a classic country narrative: a story song of disaster that repeats the line, “I tried sober / But I can’t get you out of my head / It’s over / And I can’t get you out of my head”.

Read my entire POPMATTERS review here: Mindy Smith: Mindy Smith

Monday, June 18, 2012

Eri Yamamoto Trio: The Next Page

I like this trio, led by the lyrical pianist Eri Yamamoto. Here, she produces ten engaging melodies for improvising—often wheels that spin around in your head, hooking you. This is modern jazz playing of high quality—with improvising that tells stories, probing the harmonies and moving like a rush of momentum at the right moments.

The band has been together for just about forever in modern terms: with a decade-long standing gig at New York’s Arthur’s Tavern. Bassist David Ambrosio is soulful on every tune, and drummer Ikuo Takeuchi keeps time while still being playful about it. They are not an overwhelming unit like Keith Jarrett’s Standards Trio, not a fleet-footed outfit like Brad Mehldau’s trio, nor a band that is playing with modern pop forms like the trios of Vijay Iyer or Jason Moran. Rather, you can picture them on their home turf, keeping matters intimate but engaging.

That’s all great. But the group’s most recent recording, The Next Page is perhaps a bit too nice. Yamamoto’s great distinction on previous recordings may have been her ability to be both genial and somewhat avant-garde at once—a blend of refreshing freedom and down-home appeal. True to her history, she was a pianist both in love with a great mainstream influence (Tommy Flanagan) and the pianist in out-bassist William Parker’s freewheeling quartet. This kind of sweet-and-sour combination made recordings such as 2008’s Duologue among the best of the year.

The new record is congenial to a fault. It opens with a string of sweetheart songs—like, on the title alone, “Sparkle Song”—that leave plenty of open space around their mostly simple, diatonic melodies. “Whiskey River” has a melancholy sound, but is a blue kind of pleasure for sure: quiet and contemplative but also wound into circles of slow ecstasy. “Night Shadow” has a similar appeal, with a slinky, almost Pink Pantherish blues melody that leaves plenty of room for discussion while never really leaving the key center. There are snappier tunes as well, such as the hip, backbeat-heavy “Waver”, or the clattering “Swimming Song”, which uses a gospel groove to set up Takeuchi for plenty of busy accompaniment.

But what never seems to come along on The Next Page is a tune that leads Yamamoto or Ambrosio outside the expected. “Just Walking” uses just a repeated bass line as its melody, which would seem to invite a freer form of exploration, but the pianist keeps her harmonic choices relatively mainstream here, despite the open-ended possibilities. It’s an exciting performance, with plenty of daring without mainstream forms, but just a tad tame for a player with Yamamoto’s history and young pedigree.

Read my full review here: Eri Yamamoto Trio: The Next Page on PopMatters.