Marco Benevento: Between the Needles and Nightfall

RIYL: Medeski, Martin and Wood, Stanton Moore, Trombone Shorty

Between the Needles and Nightfall If the term “Hipster Jazz” hasn’t already been coined by the folks at Pitchfork, allow me to beat them to the punch. Marco Benevento’s latest release, Between the Needles and Nightfall, sounds a bit like the bastard child of a ménage à trois between Radiohead, Trent Reznor and McCoy Tyner. It is also the definition of “Hipster Jazz,” featuring the carriage of timeless jazz themes and movements, adorned with the electronic post-production, complete with the obligatory blips and noise. It is also a mind-numbingly good record.

The tracks range from the traditional (“Ila Frost” and “Music Is Still Secret”) to avant-garde (“RISD”); and do so without losing Benevento’s unique sensibility. With many of the tracks on the record breaching the six-minute mark, the record can be a challenging one at times; but the experience is worth the investment. While Benevento’s vocabulary is clearly rooted in jazz, he steps outside with forays into pop and soul. There are moments where you can almost hear Elton John, or Joe Jackson seeping through the cracks, providing a familiar base to reference.

Speaking of familiar references, his cover of Amy Winehouse’s hit, “You Know I’m No Good,” imparts about as much grimy soul as the original; which is a hell of an accomplishment considering it is an instrumental track performed by a trio. While categorizing this as “hipster jazz” seems appropriate, the record is as well suited to headphone listening session as it is as background music for a dinner party; even if your guests aren’t hipsters. (The Royal Potato Family 2010)

Marco Benevento MySpace page
Click to buy Between the Needles and Nightfall from Amazon

Jonneine Zapata: Cast the Demons Out

RIYL: Concrete Blonde, PJ Harvey, the Dead Weather

Jonneine Zapata is a femme fatale out of LA’s famed Silverlake district, but she’s taking a much darker road than recent peers like Jenny Lewis or the Watson Twins. Zapata’s sound is much more reminiscent of LA’s early ’90s alt-rock breakout band Concrete Blonde. Zapata often sounds like she could be a sibling of Concrete Blonde vocalist Johnette Napolitano, which is classy territory.


But Zapata needs to crank up the rock factor a notch, because eight of the ten tracks here are ballads or slow blues. She has a compelling voice and powerful charisma, as evidenced on lead single “Good Looking,” a simmering tune where Zapata’s mournful voice grabs the ear. But the song never takes off, which is unfortunately the case with most of the songs. “Worry” has the same problem – the intro is entrancing, but you keep waiting for the song to kick in and it never does. Still, many of the tunes have a cinematic sort of appeal, as if taken from the soundtrack of some dark, twisted David Lynch flick.

A notable exception is “Burn,” a mid-tempo rocker composed of just a basic riff over a basic beat, but that’s all Zapata needs to propel her voice to a higher realm. The other rocker is “Cowboy,” which is downright heavy, features burning psychedelic guitar and has some serious punk attitude from Zapata. The smokey “2, 3, 4” is a highlight too, a slow burning blues song with some shimmery guitar that showcases Zapata’s mesmerizing quality when singing about what seems to be unrequited love.

Why there aren’t a few more rockers on this album is a puzzling mystery, especially considering the powerful set that Zapata and her band threw down at the Red Eyed Fly during Austin’s SXSW Festival in March. Zapata seems to come from a haunted place, so maybe she needed to cast these demons out before she can really open up. But it would be nice to see her hook up with a producer and/or creative partner who can help her fully realize the rock goddess that is clearly within. (Laughing Outlaw Records 2009)

Jonneine Zapata MySpace page

Anne McCue: Broken Promise Land

RIYL: Susan Tedischi, Lucinda Williams, Sheryl Crow,

On her second album, Broken Promise Land, Anne McCue delivers a tightly produced group of songs that is well paced and refreshing.  For the record, she’s backed by a rhythm section that consists of Ken Coomer (Uncle Tupleo, Wilco) on drums and Bones Hillman (Midnight Oil) on bass. Together, this trio creates a hard rocking sound that also pulls from the blues, country, and folk. It’s music that McCue calls “cosmic biker music.” On each track, the singer sings with a cool, lovely voice that draws you in. But it’s her killer guitar playing that keeps you coming back for more and her ability to write a catchy song that makes Broken Promise Land so memorable.

Bad ass songs like “Don’t Go to Texas,” “Rock ‘n Roll Outlaw,” and the title track show that McCue is staking her claim in the new blues movement that has made the White Stripes and the Black Keys popular. Elsewhere, on “Motorcycle Dream,” and “God’s Home Number,” a noirish, spooky number that reminds me of late night drives through the city, McCue uses crafty wordplay and a cool, slinky voice to lure you in until she unleashes a killer guitar solo.  Each track on Broken Promise Land flows naturally into the next, making this a complete listening experience and not just another album where you’re looking for the next hit single.

It’s easy to understand why McCue has gained fans in the likes of Nancy Wilson of Heart and Americana queen Lucinda Williams. McCue attacks her guitar on each song with a bevy of blues and classic rock that recalls some of the legends of the ’70s, including Wilson, while her songwriting and singing voice have an urgency and a haunted nature that recall the kind of passionate southern tales Williams has recorded during her storied career. There is a comfortableness about this music that makes it kind of timeless; no matter how many times you hear it, you never get sick of it. It’s the type of music that can form the soundtrack to peoples’ lives.  Broken Promise Land is a great listen and you’ll find yourself coming back to it again and again after your initial time through it. (Flying Machine Records 2010)

Anne McCue’s offcial website

Click to buy Broken Promise Land through Amazon

Sheryl Crow: 100 Miles from Memphis

RIYL: Shelby Lynne, Citizen Cope, Adele

To call 100 Miles from Memphis Sheryl Crow’s “soul” album would be a little misleading. It isn’t like the songwriter/songstress/Grammy favorite hasn’t always had something of a soulful streak running through her music. This latest effort just emphasizes that streak more explicitly than any of her previous albums. More importantly, it catches Crow (most of the time) in a playful, lighthearted mood. It’s a sharp turn from the heavy-handedness that’s made much of her last couple of albums a bit of a challenge to listen to, and it results in her best album in at least a decade.

Working with guitarist/producer Doyle Bramhall II, 100 Miles is a loose affair. In spirit and vibe, it’s the closest Crow has come to matching her charming 1993 debut, Tuesday Night Music Club. After focusing much of her material on personal and political issues for the past few years, it’s nice to hear her lighten up. The fact that she has lightened up a bit also makes the songs where she does turn serious (like the political “Say What You Want”) a lot easier to take.

The Hammond B-3 organ gets a major workout on 100 Miles. Not surprising, given that the instrument was a hallmark of the Memphis soul that Crow references in the album’s title. “Eye to Eye,” a standout track, matches an Al Green-type sound with a reggae beat. “Stop” is Crow’s most affecting ballad in quite some time, and she scores with big-name collaborators like Citizen Cope (on a cover of his “Sideways”) and Memphis native Justin Timberlake (on the album’s most surprising track – an effective cover of Terence Trent D’Arby’s “Sign Your Name”). As a tip of the cap to one of the people who gave her a start in the music industry, she adds a faithful cover of the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” to the end of the album. It’s casual, and Sheryl sounds like she had fun doing it – an apt way to close a record that’s one of the loosest (and best) of Crow’s career. (A&M Records 2010)

Sheryl Crow MySpace page

Me, Myself, and iPod 7/28/10: Bayside High stole my record collection

esd ipod

Have a ton of stuff to do before heading off to Lolla next week, so this will be a short one.

Pete Yorn – Precious Stone
New track from Pete’s upcoming, Frank Black-produced album Self Titled. Sounds like Pete, but rawer, which is just what I was expecting.

Ex Norwegian – Jet Lag
Having reached out to me on MySpace a while back, these guys are quickly becoming a favorite around these parts. At the risk of tagging them as a throwback band – to the ’90s, no less – their sound is definitely not of this time. Big, ringing choruses, slightly dirty bass lines, horn-kissed verses…this would have been a #1 modern rock hit in 1995.

White Car – No Better
Holy Wax Trax, Batman. This Chicago industrial outfit has just made a track that will have fans of “Everyday Is Halloween” running for their Doc Martens.

Team Bayside High – No Sleeves Attached DJ Mix
In truth, this is not the most mind-blowing DJ mix you’ve ever heard. In fact, it’s pretty raw and basic, and when the drums kick in at the end of “Song 2,” I couldn’t help but wince a little. But I like their choice of songs, since they spend most of the time mixing rock songs, and I like the melding of rock and dance. Putting “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in here was a stretch (they had to speed it up to the point where it sounds unnatural), but we’ll still check out their DJ set at Lolla, schedule permitting.

Amanda Palmer: Amanda Palmer Performs the Popular Hits of Radiohead 0n Her Magical Ukulele

RIYL: The Dresden Dolls, Radiohead, Hawaiian music

A lot of bands have cribbed the “pay what you want” album release method from Radiohead since the release of In Rainbows. But Amanda Palmer has to be the first to do it with a Radiohead covers album.

Amanda Palmer Performs the Popular Hits of Radiohead on Her Magical Ukulele is just that, Amanda Palmer performing six of Radiohead’s most well-known songs on her ukulele, with the occasional piano and string accompaniment. Oddly enough, the songs of Radiohead lend themselves well to to these sparse renditions. On the openers “Fake Plastic Trees” and “High and Dry,” Palmer’s powerful voice add punch to the bleak lyrics, even when they’re accompanied by the naturally upbeat sound of ukulele plucking. Other times she doesn’t really have to do much the source material; nothing could make “No Surprises” bleaker, and the piano and ukulele arrangement here is nearly identical to the original. And “Exit Music (For a Film)” is straight cover of the original with piano and strings (not one of which sounds like a ukulele). “Idioteque” also captures the feel of the original well, with the manic breakbeats of the original transformed into lightning-fast finger-picking. The only time this goofy concept actually sounds goofy is during both versions of “Creep,” which just sound like novelty cover tracks.

If you like Amanda Palmer, or Radiohead, and want to see what a mad woman with a ukulele is capable of, then there are definitely worse ways to spend 84 cents (the minimal cost for buying the record). (AFP 2010)

Amanda Palmer website

The Roots: How I Got Over

RIYL: Common, Mos Def, De La Soul

The most surprising aspect of the Roots’ excellent ninth studio album How I Got Over is not that it’s something of a downer. Looking at the band’s discography going all the way back to 2004’s The Tipping Point shows a group of guys in a bit of a bad mood, which continued through their next two albums, Game Theory and Rising Down. Their gig on Jimmy Fallon’s late-night show, while presumably providing a steady paycheck, has not lightened them up, at least in terms of lyrics and message.

No, what hits you first on the new album is how laid-back and confident they sound while delivering the bad news. The Roots have always drawn on soul and other strands of black music to inform their brand of live instrument-based hip-hop, but this could almost be thought of as their folk album. Guest stars include not just fellow rappers such as Dice Raw, Truck North and P.O.R.N. (none of whom outshine the perpetually slept-on Black Thought), but artists decidedly outside hip-hop circles including Monsters of Folk, Joanna Newsom and the Dirty Projectors. How I Got Over may strike some listeners as a little too mellow at first, but on repeated listens this album is almost guaranteed to grow on you. Black Thought again lives up to his name, relying less on spitting “live rounds that will penetrate a vest” and more on insights that penetrate the mind. And while many of the songs seem like an attempt to catalog as many social ills as possible in rhymes, as the album goes on it picks up in terms of energy and mood. Things culminate with the almost feel-good anthem “The Fire,” an “Eye of the Tiger” for hip-hop heads. (In one of the album’s clever twists, “The Fire” is a collaboration with John Legend, and it follows “Doin’ It Again,” built on a John Legend sample.)

That’s followed up by the straight up ass-kicker “Web 20/20,” a welcome throwback to old-school Roots, and then the album ends with the slow-rolling “Hustla,” which breaks the world down into hustlers and customers. Not the most cheery thought in the world, but what do you want? These are the Roots. They only play happy on TV. (Def Jam 2010)

The Roots MySpace page

Susan Cowsill: Lighthouse

RIYL: Eva Cassidy, Jackson Browne, Shawn Colvin, The Cowsills

Susan Cowsill’s second solo effort, Lighthouse, is a deceptive album. On the surface, it’s a collection of heartfelt, pretty songs sung by a woman whose voice is rich with texture and soul. Especially when listening through headphones, you get a real sense of how wonderful her voice must be when heard live in a small setting. When you sit down to listen to Lighthouse, the first two or three songs lure you in for what should be a pleasant experience. However, once you get midway through the CD’s twelve tracks, Cowsill’s limitations as a lyricist begin to become apparent.

The singer/songwriter deals with some heavy themes on this record. A majority of the songs were written after the death of her two brothers, during a period that followed the wrath of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated Cowsill’s home in New Orleans. Cowsill tries to fill each song with a sense of spirituality and optimism that is refreshing, yet her delivery and her lyrics are so earnest that the whole album starts to wear thin. Think of it as neo folk alt pop emo; taken in small doses it’s nice to the ears, but an entire album’s worth may lead you to whip the CD down the driveway.

Still, there are some great songs on Lighthouse. “Avenue of the Indians” features a fine guest appearance by Jackson Browne – Cowsill’s voice is lovely when singing harmony; a beautiful cover of Jimmy Webb’s “Galveston” is near perfect; the title track is an aching, hopeful prayer made delicate by Jack Craft’s piano and cello playing; and “ONOLA” is a hell of a show of strength and loyalty to her adopted city of New Orleans. In fact, when backed by a full on, rocking backing band, as on “ONOLA,” Cowsill’s urgency comes across much better. If only she’d chosen to bear her soul with more hard driving songs instead of ballads and Lighthouse would have been much more memorable. (2010, Threadhead Records)

Susan Cowsill’s MySpace Page
Purchase Lighthouse through Amazon

Kevin Hart: Seriously Funny

RIYL: “Def Comedy Jam”, Mo’Nique, “Soul Plane”

If you’re a fan of stand-up comedy, you’d probably be right not to expect comedic gold from someone who starred in “Soul Plane” alongside Snoop Dogg and Tom Arnold. However, low expectations can actually be beneficial, and Hart’s latest CD, Seriously Funny, manages to be reasonably funny – certainly funnier than any sober viewing of “Soul Plane” or just about anything else in the diminutive comic’s film catalog.

Over the course of an hour-long show taped at the Allen theater in Cleveland (aired as a special on Comedy Central and also available on DVD), Hart spins fairly standard but still moderately amusing yarns about married life (the sex gets boring), having children (parenting is hard), relationships and coming to terms with his own lack of toughness. The biggest laughs come from a bit in which he watches his father get beaten up and an extended sequence in which he explains how to storm out of a domestic argument correctly. His style of comedy isn’t especially original – stand-ups have been mining these topics since the dawn of creation, but Hart strikes a decent balance between the familiar and the slightly racy. His jokes are mildly profane on occasion, but won’t cause jaws to drop like much of the stand-up work of legends ranging from George Carlin to Eddie Murphy or even new jacks like Aziz Ansari. If you’ve watched a couple episodes of “Def Comedy Jam,” it’s very likely that you’ve heard some permutation of these jokes before.

The issue with comedy albums is always the fact that some of the jokes are inevitably visual, and thus fall flat in recorded audio form. That’s occasionally the case here. However, despite the hindrance of not actually being able to see Hart, it’s a credit to him that a good chunk of his jokes still fly. Seriously Funny doesn’t totally live up to its title, but it’s good enough that we can easily picture him starring in a family sitcom a la D.L. Hughley or Damon Wayans someday. (Comedy Central 2010)

Kevin Hart MySpace page

Ex Norwegian: Sketch

RIYL: Matthew Sweet, Sloan, The Pursuit of Happiness

Proof positive in the existence of parallel universes. Sketch, the sophomore effort from Miami trio Ex Norwegian, is an otherworldly slab of catchy pop rock song after catchy pop rock song, conceived in some fantastic place where the ’90s power pop bubble never burst. (Lucky bastards never had to suffer through nu metal and emo. We want to go there, now.) Some of the songs bear the markings of a grunge influence – opening track “Jet Lag” opens with a D-tuned bass and chord sequence that would not have been out of place on Alice in Chains’ Dirt – and then when the chorus hits, it morphs into the best song Sloan never wrote, all sunny harmonies and ringing guitars. “Sky Diving” is a gorgeous slice of melancholic pop (likewise “Upper Hand”), and “Acting on an Island” deftly shifts time signatures around an unforgettable climbing melody. As comfortable with upbeat sing-a-longs as they are with darker, more introspective material – with the added bonus of having three musicians who can sing lead – Sketch is the sound of a band with limitless potential. Here’s hoping that bubble in which they’re living remains intact. (Ex Norwegian 2010)

Ex Norwegian MySpace page
Click to buy Sketch

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