Exene Cervenka: Somewhere Gone

RIYL: Knitters, Nanci Griffith, Maria McKee

Most artists who are able to maintain any sort of credibility and longevity usually prove adept at the power of transformation, especially when it comes to adapting their style. After all, continuing in the same direction after a decade or more almost inevitably becomes tiresome without at least some tweaking to the standard MO. Never mind the Eagles or Billy Joel; who would have expected Dylan to rail on forever in protest and poetic mode, or that Joni Mitchell would retain her little girl innocence and pensive strum without some further artistic embellishment? Yet even with that basic precept in mind, witnessing Exene Cervenka’s stylistic transformation – from punk goddess with X to the folk loyalist she’s become – still registers as a somewhat drastic evolution. After all, her stewardship of X, one of Los Angeles’ most virulent punk bands, set a standard of sorts for an entire decade of West Coast outrage and insurgency, reconfiguring Southern California’s sunny vibes into a hotbed of rock rebellion easily on par with the Manhattan graduating class of CBGB’s.

Of course, Cervenka wasn’t the only member of X to ceremoniously segue from turbulence to tradition. Both her male counterparts, John Doe and rotating member Dave Alvin, followed the same course, and when Cervenka and Doe formed the Knitters, a down-home revival band powered by unabashed devotion, the stage was set. Cervenka herself has proven to be both durable and diversified, spawning a notable solo career, various side projects and even an impressive literary output. But with her latest venture, the tellingly dubbed Somewhere Gone, Cervenka ups the ante when it comes to back porch ambiance and freewheeling folksiness. With Amy Farris’ fiddle play at the fore, she plunges head first into distinctly rural environs, finding an easy fit in these sing-along settings. Being that this is her first solo soirée in almost two decades, there’s reason enough to believe that she’s naturally more mellow and had ample time to rethink her course, but given the laidback vibe of “Trojan Horse,” “Somewhere Gone” and “The Willow Tree,” it’s actually easy to imagine her perched out in a pasture somewhere, sucking on some straw while contentedly watching as the livestock graze. The ramshackle “Fine Familiar” and rollicking honkytonk of “Walk with Me across the Night” only reinforce that notion.

Still, Cervenka’s segue may surprise those who only remember her through the tinted lens of two decades gone by. Though no longer in the guise of a femme fatale, who would have expected Cervenka would reinvent herself as a country crooner? (Bloodshot, 2009)

Exene Cervenka MySpace page
Click to buy Somewhere Gone from Amazon


Lou Barlow: Goodnight Unknown

RIYL: Nirvana, Folk Implosion, Foo Fighters

Lou Barlow’s music may sometimes seem to defy definition, but one thing can be said for certain: As one of the more prolific figures of the post-punk generation – if not one of the more deliberately obscure – he’s maintained a steady presence through a variety of guises for the better part of the past 20 years. Starting his musical journey with the influential and irrepressible Dinosaur Jr., Barlow subsequently plied his talents through several high-profile indie outfits, Sebadoh and Folk Implosion among them. Each incarnation has found him mining a sound that’s as daring as it is defiant. Regardless, absolute devotees will testify that it’s in his role as a solo performer that he’s at his most articulate and expressive, and happily, this latest outing proves to be no exception.

Still, as always, it’s hard to get a handle on where Barlow is going with some of these songs. Layer upon layer of foggy melodies, cloudy atmospherics and vocals that sound like they were recorded in distant environs do little to encourage any hint of immediate accessibility. Nevertheless, he frequently connects almost in spite of himself. Shimmering set-ups like “I’m Thinking” and “The One I Call,” along with the lilting delicacy of “Modesty,” “Take Advantage” and “Too Much Freedom,” run headlong into the agitated sludge that blurs the more melodic prospects for songs like “Sharing,” “Gravitate” and “The Right.”

Happily, though, a more accessible sound does emerge as the 14 tracks wind down to their conclusion. Barlow segues into a mellower mode, and if there’s any comparison to be made at this point, it’s genuinely unexpected. “Take Advantage” and “Don’t Apologize” actually sound similar to…wait for it…Donovan, in traveling troubadour mode. Yes, it’s an unlikely shift, but then again, who better to pull off this chameleon-like transformation than an agile artist like Barlow?

Consistently intriguing at every turn, Barlow’s metamorphosis has always demanded a closer listen, and certainly Goodnight Unknown, as its title somewhat cryptically implies, isn’t any different. While Barlow may be edging towards accessibility, it’s clearly too soon to say he’s committed himself entirely to following a standard script. Still, Goodnight Unknown may be the closest he comes to earning any distinction as a higher profile indie rock god along the lines of, say, Dave Grohl, with whom he shares a certain renegade sensibility. Whether or not the current incarnation of Dinosaur Jr. grinds itself into extinction remains unclear, but one thing remains clear – Lou Barlow casts an indomitable shadow all his own. (Merge, 2009)

Lou Barlow MySpace page
Click to buy Goodnight Unknown from Amazon