OLLABELLE – NEON BLUE BIRD

The first talking point you’ll usually hear about NY’s Ollabelle is that they feature the voice of Amy Helm, daughter of the incomparable Levon Helm, drummer, vocalist, and mandolinist for The Band. Several of Ollabelle’s members perform in the Levon Helm Band, alongside Larry Campbell, at Levon’s weekly Midnight Rambles at his barn/studio in Woodstock. Ollabelle played a large part in Levon’s two comeback albums, Dirt Farmer and Electric Dirt, and they also backed Jim White on his 2008 album Transnormal Skiperoo.

On their own, though, Ollabelle forge a unique identity, above the cluttered NY revival scene and proudly beside their bloodline to The Band — an impressive feat because they do it in mostly traditional song forms, folk and gospel. In 2004, T-Bone Burnett produced their self-titled debut album. Larry Campbell manned the 2006 follow-up, Riverside Battle Songs. Their third offering, Neon Blue Bird, took years to complete while members of the band started families, but the result is no less coherent or rewarding for it. The band features four strong songwriters — Helm, Glenn Patscha, Fiona McBain, Byron Isaacs — and a stronger eye for choosing covers, so their albums have always been varied, flowing between swampy gospel and blue-eyed soul, with an emphasis on vocal harmonies.

Of the original compositions, Glenn Patscha’s “One More Time” is my favorite — just acoustic guitar, drums, upright bass, and mandolin, with some piano fills.  Though Ollabelle used this stripped-down set-up successfully on Riverside Battle Songs, other than “One More Time,” Neon Blue Bird takes more electric turns (as per the title). Fiona McBan’s “Wait for the Sun” is Dusty Springfield revisited. Byron Isaac’s “Brotherly Love” is a hilarious gospel trip about how aspiring towards social fraternity might be aiming a little low. “I’m sure you know the old fable / about Cain and little Abel,” he reminds.

On Neon Blue Bird, out of all the songs in the world, the cover tunes that emerge are inspired and unexpected: Paul Kelly‘s (the American, not the Australian) “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” “Lovin’ in my Baby’s Eyes” by blues lifer Taj Mahal, and “Dirt Floor” by the chameleonic Chris Whitley. But they all sound original in Ollabelle’s hands. Traditional songs “Be Your Woman,” “Butcher Boy,” and a warm take on Steven Foster’s “Swanee River” round-out the album.

You can use textural diction to describe Ollabelle’s music: it’s harmonic and doesn’t want for loneliness; it’s thick, frenzied, almost suffocating on the gospel tracks; comfortable, familial on the folk ones. But, simply, it’s just gorgeous. I’ve found listening to Ollabelle albums to be an experience I don’t have with other albums. Not to wax too Moeller, but it’s an experience like neon, rare and extracted from the air. A glowing, gaseous album of Essential Listening.

Ollabelle – One More Time
Ollabelle – Wait For The Sun
Ollabelle – Lovin’ In My Baby’s Eyes

Ollabelle on Facebook, Ollabelle’s Official Site, Buy (and hear in full) Neon Blue Bird

ONE HUNDRED DOLLARS – SONGS OF MAN

One Hundred Dollars is led by the sultry baladeering of Simone Schmidt and Ian Russell’s sharp guitar. They hail from Toronto and Songs of Man is their second full-length album. As soon as I downloaded Songs of Man, it started pouring rain, which was great news for me for two reasons: 1 – The thunderstorm scared my roommate’s girlfriend’s amp-chewing schmuck of a dog that I’m sitting into the corner and finally got him to calm down. Two – It cast the perfect setting for a One Hundred Dollars listen on the porch.

Schmidt’s got one of the sexiest voices since Chrissy Hinde, because, like Hinde, she doesn’t ham-it up. Her voice owns it’s smokiness the way the South owns it’s clay–it’s native, it’s not put-on or shipped-in, it’s got truth to tell you. That’s what makes a sexy voice. That, and lyrics like:

Run your fingers through my hair,
don’t let your heart’s hope be your hand’s despair…
Time moves quicker with a softer touch.
Love me while you’re waiting on another. Love me a while.
– from “Waiting on Another”

By that point in the listen, the dog had been rendered completely docile and affectionate (by the music or the thunder or some combination), and we’d successfully learned a waltz. Miracles abounded. For instance, if you listen closely to “Powdered Confessions,” you’ll hear Ian Russell echo  Neil Young’s guitar riff from “Unknown Legend.” There are so many more distinctive moments on the album that you won’t even mind the slight rip-off. However, I think that guitar lick is critical to understanding the origins of this album. I have a theory, stick with me:

In 1992–that torrid time, that sweltering summer–the world bore witness to two harbingers of hell: the landfall of Category 5 Hurricane Andrew and Democratic Presidential Candidate Bill Clinton making lip-love to a saxophone on late night TV. Rather than wait around for the third and final sign of the times (which everybody mistakenly thought was the Church of England’s vote to allow women to serve as priests), the Canadian government decided to take action to save their cultural currency (because in Canada, the people demand that the government actually acknowledge their own art). What those brave Canadian minds did was lock two of 1992’s best albums in time capsule and set them to play on infinite repeat. Those albums were Neil Young’s Harvest Moon and Leonard Cohen’s The Future, selected because together they embodied the best of the sex of the North Country, the pulse of their terrain and the weight of their even more massive sky. Nineteen years and no judgment later, those albums had done something more than repeat, they had reproduced, and the doom-raised, teenage offspring that emerged in summer 2011 is One Hundred Dollars’ Songs of Man. It makes sense to me.

After that, the dog just tore-up a whole box of Famous Amos and my wallet. I think he got a throat-ful of pennies. And this indictment from Schmidt:

Your mother was a flame of mine, gave meaning to the word.
And I a lonely woodchopper, seeking out what I could as I would with time to burn.
For every time you thought that I did not love you,
for every time you thought that I did not care, well
I handled my axe, made my way through the forest, cleaved a tree
toward the kindling for the fires of regret.
– from “Fires of Regret

Songs of Man is golden–a modern roots heavyweight, pitted full of vivid characters. One Hundred Dollars earns the auspicious honor of busting my Essential Listening cherry. They’re sure to knock you out in a way much more pleasurable than the way in which I would like to knock out this dog.

One Hundred Dollars – Ties That Bind
One Hundred Dollars – Waiting On Another
One Hundred Dollars – Where The Sparrow Drops

One Hundred Dollars Official Site, One Hundred Dollars on Facebook, Buy Songs of Man

JOEY CAPE – DOESN'T PLAY WELL WITH OTHERS AND JOEY CAPE'S BAD LOUD

Recently there’s been plenty of 90’s rock-and-roll to go around: Pavement and Soundgarden reunions, Nirvana and Pearl Jam reissues, Green Day’s released the same album like five times now. But one of that generation’s truly underrated bandleaders, Joey Cape (of Lagwagon and Bad Astronaut), has also unleashed two solid projects this year: an acoustic solo album, Doesn’t Play Well with Others, and a new band, the Bad Loud.

DPWWO is the follow-up to 2008’s Bridge—with Cape again producing and playing everything, but this time self-releasing. Those album titles reinforce the fact that Cape’s solo ventures don’t fit-in perfectly with traditional acoustic projects of buddies like Jon Snodgrass and Chad Price. Cape isn’t country—he’s pure Paul Simon, pop-cum-rock, don’t give a shit what instruments are in front of you, play your songs because they’re yours and yours only. That’s a strategy that pays off because nobody writes exactly like Cape and, sure as hell, nobody sings like him. However, at the same time, it often feels like Cape’s songs don’t even fit-in within themselves—he’s had some trouble on Bridge and his collaborations with Tony Sly with putting those songs and that voice to music that nails all the potential. This year, he’s hit that sound on the head twice over (I’ll get to the Bad Loud soon). DPWWO stands out in his catalogue because it finds great, subtle, musical textures to support the words and voice. Characteristically, Cape writes about aging, anxieties, relationships, responsibilities—but he throws in a few caustic-but-catchy numbers about white entitlement (“It’s Always Sunny”) and the American war addiction (“Uniform”). The emotional load is lightened by the loving “Montreal” which features soft horns, accordion, and a French interlude a la The Band’s “Acadian Driftwood.”

These poignant lines from the opener “Going for the Bronze” kick the album out of the gate:

“I’ll take what I can get at the finish line / Drafting the pack in the blind / All thoroughbreds in their prime / Bound to show / Running down this lonely road / Forgoing the gold / I’m going for the bronze”

Cape does play well with a couple of others—the album features guest spots by Snodgrass on “I’m Not Gonna Save You” (which appeared on the Cape/Snodgrass split 7″) and Joey’s daughter Violet on “It’s Always Sunny.”

Then Joey Cape formed another band! The Bad Loud is Cape on guitar along with Carl Raether on bass and Asher Simon on drums. There’s also a fair share of Brian Wahlstom’s keys in there. Last Spring, they took a trip to the Blasting Room in Fort Collins, Colorado, where Bill Stevenson & Co. recorded full-band versions of many DPWWO songs, as well as a few from Bridge. Cape put these sessions up on the Bad Loud bandcamp on a pay-what-you-want system to raise money for the band to record their first album of original songs. These sessions are well worth your donation. You should open up a new tab and start listening to them now. The Bad Loud takes these songs up to Bad Astronaut levels (represented by the formula: infinity times awesome) and beyond. What constitutes “beyond,” you ask? That’s a good question, you’re not some blind Bed, Bath, and Beyond customer who accepts mystery when the answer in that case is clear: Beyond = Kitchen. In Joey Cape’s Bad Loud, Beyond = Guitar Solos. Really good guitar solos, matched by Simon’s drumming, Snodgrass and Price backing vocals, and another Violet Cape appearance, this time on “Okay.”

Doesn’t Play Well with Others” is his best solo album and the Bad Loud is the best rock since Bad Astronaut. They’re mostly the same songs, but you can’t go wrong with getting either or both versions. You should get both. Listen to DPWWO for breakfast and Bad Loud for lunch then DPWWO again for dinner and Bad Loud before going out to see a Bad Astronaut reunion show.

Joey Cape – The Fish Rots From The Head Case Down
Joey Cape – Montreal
Joey Cape – It’s Always Sunny

Joey Cape’s Official Site, Bad Loud on Bandcamp, Buy Doesn’t Play Well With Others

JOSH SMALL – JUKE

Like most people (I think), I had no expectations for Josh Small’s previous album, Tall, when I first heard it. One Spring, I was looking-up bands that were playing the first Harvest of Hope and Small’s name sounded promising; then I learned he was in Tim Barry’s band which upgraded him to Most-Promising. Since seeing Small play live then, and a bunch more times, and listening to that album on every long drive I’ve done the last few years, Tall has become one of my favorite albums. So, with that, and the fact that Tim Barry’s been running around telling everybody “Honestly, it’s the best album I’ve heard in years,” his follow-up, Juke, comes with much more expectation. Or, you know, as much expectation as an album by a woodsy folksinger blending nineteen-sixties-n-seventies Chicago soul music with eighteen-sixties-n-seventies Appalachian music can be. Which should be a lot!

Juke shrugs off every expectation, because it’s a different album than Tall. Whereas Tall is a Lose Weight Exercisey, throbbing, road-album, Juke is more tinny, frisky, and somehow a little more settled and mature. A good walking album. Without even getting into the music, one look at the album credits will tell you all you need to know about the character of this album. Instead of standard credits like “drums,” “vox,” “electric guitars,” some of Juke‘s include: boogie woogie guitars, schoals drums, space bomb guitar, wonkey guitar, resophonic disney jazz, popeye bass, bells and cool stuff, and Jonathan Vasser playing the role of “paul simon” on the track “Everyone’s Daughter.”

Getting into the actual music is easy: it’s The Shit. Would you doubt Tim Barry? (editor’s note: Doing so might catch you and ass whooping) Small’s a virtuoso, kicking ass on banjo, resonator guitar, and who knows how many other strings. His vocals are less dramatic and more dynamic than on Tall. The backing band pops and flips and somersaults. Liza Kate’s guest vocals on “Waterwings” are glorious. Small can write anything from freewheeling, tone-centric lyrics, to “coherent” story-songs. His diction, like Austin Lucas’, can be breathtaking when it hits. See: “Say atonal I love you, make the sound of a bruise.

Maybe it’s because the banjo, and many other instruments used in folk music, originated in Africa, but Juke stokes a noticeable African influence that goes beyond the blues. That understanding of the instruments is what makes this album so interesting to me—that Small can summon dixieland and ragtime grooves on “Everyone’s Daughter,” choirs and conga on “Sing Song,” straight picking on “Diver Down,” Curtis Mayfield on “15/20,” and bring them all to a head on the album’s closer, “Somebody’s Queen.” Juke earns it’s title. It sounds like what a carousel of American songs sound like.

Obviously, this one get’s filed under Essential Listening.

Josh Small – Everyone’s Daughter
Josh Small – Water Wings
Josh Small – Somebody’s Queen

Josh Small’s Official Site, Josh Small on Facebook, Buy Josh Small’s Juke

JOEL PLASKETT: EMERGENCYS, FALSE ALARMS, SHIPWRECKS, CASTAWAYS, FRAGILE CREATURES, SPECIAL FEATURES, DEMONS AND DEMONSTRATIONS

If you can’t tell by the title of this collection, Joel Plaskett is Canadian and awesome. He’s the rock’roll offspring of Tom Petty and Paul McCartney—the one that lives in the garage, not even in the room above the garage, just in the garage, with the old radio and the antifreeze. And it’s a garage in Canada, so think how cold it must be.

Emergencys is 20 tracks spanning Plaskett’s work with his band the Emergency, which he formed after disbanding the hard-rocking Thrush Hermit. Plaskett has run an ambitious and creative solo career, including a concept album set in his old high school as well as a 27-song triple album. So it’s to be expected that a few of the songs included here aim for something interesting and end up somewhere else. But most of them hit that twangy power pop sweet spot. This collection is the perfect place to start sorting through his work; you can hear Plaskett becoming a better songwriter over this decade’s-worth of dirty rock and eventually you’ll get to the part where Plaskett gets rescued from that Canadian garage by his uncle Paul Westerberg.

One of the most apt lyrics to make it into any career-spanning compilation: “Just because we love you does not mean we miss you.

Joel Plaskett – Make A Little Noise
Joel Plaskett – Nothing More To Say
Joel Plaskett – When I Go

Joel Plaskett’s Official Site, Joel Plaskett on Facebook, Buy Emergencys