By Rebecca Bulnes
By Laurie Charles
By Chuck Strouse
By Lee Zimmerman
By Laurie Charles
By Falyn Freyman
By Hans Morgenstern
Some people have argued that bands such as Sonic Youth and Urge Overkill, simply by forsaking their indie status and signing with a major label, have made a Faustian pact with the corporate alt-rock devil. But that kind of knee-jerk analysis does a disservice both to the bands, who surrender a measure of independence to attain widespread distribution of their work and, not incidentally, actually have some pocket change, and to the majors, who, between grinding out megasellers by Mariah Carey and Michael Bolton, take first chances on likable newcomers such as Wanderlust while giving second and third chances to habitually nonselling notables such as Joe Ely.
No, the embodiment of corporate alt-rock -- or corporate punk or corporate AOR or corporate Nashville or corporate new wave or corporate metal -- can be found in faceless, soulless, any-way-the-wind-blows bands and solo artists. You know them: Journey, Tribe, Highway 101, Pablo Cruise, Exile, Survivor, Cutting Crew, Mr. Mister, Cinderella, Power Station, Motels, Missing Persons, and on and on and on. Not forgetting Sun 60, a pretend alt-rock band (a little Letters to Cleo, a little Mazzy Star, a little of whatever you want) intrinsically bereft of ideas and passion, a band practiced at replicating a reasonable facsimile of what they perceive to be the current big thing, a band that seems most likely to contribute the lead track to a Quarterflash tribute album.
Organic is a fitting title for tenor saxophonist Don Braden's so-funky-you-can-smell-it new release. Following in the Sixties tradition of tenor-organ teamups such as Lou Donaldson-Jimmy McGriff and Stanley Turrentine-Jimmy Smith, Braden ensconces his lush, late-night tone in bubbling, bluesy Hammond B-3, tightly coiled guitar lines, and easy-swinging fatback rhythm.
At the age of 32, Braden, like other young jazz lions, has made all the right moves, attending Harvard and graduating from the "schools" of Wynton Marsalis and Betty Carter, both of which have produced excellent musicians. What sets Braden apart from many of his youthful counterparts is his gift for natural, unselfconscious melodic invention: muscular without being overpowering, swinging without being hypnotized by the metronome, sort of a Soul Trained Sonny Rollins.
Braden is joined on several tunes by jazz vets "Brother" Jack McDuff on organ, Tom Harrell on trumpet, and Leon Parker on percussion. McDuff's "Walkin' the Dog" (not Rufus Thomas's R&B standard) is a standout, with McDuff's churchy tone digging a deep groove and Russell Malone providing a bee-sting guitar solo worthy of Steve Cropper. The other organist here, Larry Goldings, plays on half the tunes, displaying a lighter touch than McDuff on the keys. His style works well on the sprightly, laid-back Braden original "Brighter Days," as well as on a surprisingly swinging version of the Whitney Houston hit "Saving All My Love for You."
Braden displays a great flair for balladry as he reheats the old chestnuts "Moonglow" (accompanied only by Malone's sensitive chordings) and "It Might as Well Be Spring" (accompanied only by McDuff). Like the sad-eyed Lester Young, Braden gauges the emotional temperature just right, sidestepping bathos and cliche, but still remains deeply affecting. Organic cooks with a loose, limber, jazz-club feel, as if you were listening in on an after-hours jam or the last set of the night. Braden's playing and smart compositions neatly straddle the soul-jazz line, balancing spontaneity and improvisation with adherence to groove.
By Bob Weinberg
Rank and File
The finest Nashville songwriter this side of Steve Earle, Mark Geronimo continues to amaze and edify with his acerbic anthems and tuneful ballads. This self-proclaimed "liberal redneck," usually found fronting an electric band (the Sluggers), goes acoustic on Rank and File, with splendid results. Geronimo's raspy growl is a perfect complement to the masterful slide guitar work of Mac Gayden, and the gentler sound has done nothing to diminish the moral outrage that fuels Geronimo's lyrics. He still rails against civilization and its dependable stock of hypocrites and moneygrubbers on the dozen songs collected here, and his knack for gently unspooling a melody remains as keen as ever. If you have any affinity for antiestablishment country music, then Geronimo's your man.
With her lofty, boisterous mezzo-soprano and her flare for securing the songwriting talents of others (Paul Brady, Shawn Colvin, and Mary Chapin Carpenter here), Maura O'Connell is one of a breed of singers -- minus the "songwriter" tag -- whose every vocal turn embraces the lyrics and music as if they were hers alone. Relocating to Nashville after spending her formative years in her native County Clare, Ireland, O'Connell creates a subtle blend of brogue and twang on her seventh album, Stories. Swaying easily from the stirring two-step waltz of Carpenter's "Wall Around Your Heart" to averring Norma Rae bravado on Dana Cooper's "Hit the Ground Runnin'," O'Connell's depth and conviction settle like a gentle pat on the back. On "Love Divine," with background vocal support from James Taylor, she wakes up to smell the heartache, declaring "in your good time/I won't be waiting for tomorrow." And on the mellow acoustic shuffle "This Town Can't Get Over You," O'Connell laments leaving the Crescent City after a soured affair, knowing the city ain't big enough for her and her memories. There's one ill-fitting track -- Lennon and McCartney's "If I Fell" -- which should have been left on the Star Search stage. Otherwise, O'Connell's interpretations of life's lessons leave a sense of fulfillment, not futility, making her Stories the rainbow that follows the rain.