Miles from Our Home
The seventh record by Canadian mood-music purveyors Cowboy Junkies trades folk-rock simplicity for a West Coast sound that evokes California's particular brand of sun-drenched angst and broken souls. From the Doors-like spell of "Blue Guitar" (co-written with the late Townes Van Zandt) to the simmering Plimsouls feel of "New Dawn Coming" and "The Summer of Discontent" to the percolating Motels-style sheen of the title track, the band summons the blooming, burnished, and jaded feel of Los Angeles without really trying. This is especially intriguing considering the album was recorded in their home country with producer John Leckie, most recently known for his work with British bands Radiohead, the Verve, Kula Shaker, and the Stone Roses.
Miles from Our Home feels like a travelogue through sacred ground, an overnight drive made while singing songs to stay awake or to ease the pain of all that was left behind. Vocalist Margo Timmins woos the listener as always, taking her time with each line as she peels the emotional layers away or shakes them loose with her trademark vibrato. The band moves and drones behind her like a ghost, an aura around her that's as steady and deep as the hum of the highway, spinning out the soundtrack to Michael Timmins's earthy prose as they glide along. "Lie with me upon the earth/Feel its curve beneath our spines" Margo sings on the shimmering piano tune "Darkling Days," pondering redemption and a lover's dissent. As she presents the idea that "beautiful is not chosen," she also asserts that beauty can be discovered in a kindred lost soul and willfully found in others by choice.
In the gorgeous "Those Final Feet," grace is pursued through a landscape of organ-soaked melody and waterfall piano lines. "You said never to grow old/But you forgot to tell me how/You said never to grow old/And sink your teeth into those final feet," she sings, questioning how to embrace the end, whenever it comes. Methodically stripping away denial, she contends there's "no sense wasting the time you've got/You've gotta walk down every road/No sense pretending you're what you're not/When you've gotta shoulder every load," reveling in the peace that comes with each step toward acceptance of life's ultimate fate.
Death is more unsettling in the album's closer, an eerie hidden track. "Honey, I saw your daddy, lying by the roadside/His feet sticking out of a sack," Timmins laments. "Honey, they'll be calling to tell you/That your daddy never will be coming back." The lines "Again at the end of the rainbow/Again no words to be found/Just a voice sad and alone/Me wishing I was home/In the silence along the telephone line" provide a chilling end to this road trip and the record, as Timmins's voice trails off into a guitar buzzing like a receiver left off the hook. Whether the climactic call is set in a Sunset Strip phone booth or a snowy Toronto alley, this fresh, disturbing tune makes a strong case for further exploration of the new sound the Junkies have discovered.
-- Robin Myrick
It's almost common sense to expect that an artist like Elliott Smith would blow his major-label debut. Brooding and bleak, the Portland native seems almost too fragile for the big leagues. His most recent indie album, 1997's Either/Or (Kill Rock Stars), was an uncommonly tough take on the singer-songwriter tradition. As if he knew that his material was among the strongest that had come down that particular pike in almost a decade, Smith delivered it with an extremely soft touch, spotlighting the for-the-ages sturdiness of the songs with hushed delicacy.
When "Miss Misery," a written-to-order for Gus Van Sant's Good Will Hunting soundtrack, was nominated for a 1997 Best Original Song Academy Award, Either/Or, Smith's third solo album, had sold only 15,000 copies. DreamWorks label exec Lenny Waronker was a long-time fan; he signed the then 28-year-old, Portland-based Smith just in time for the explosion in interest spurred by the Oscar nomination. But the sight of the deeply sensitive, admittedly stage-fright-prone Smith performing "Miss Misery" as part of the glitzy awards show last March didn't bode well for his career as a major rock star.
Surprise: Smith's going to take his place in the rock pantheon sooner than later. XO is every bit as deep, poetic, and melodically undeniable as the exquisite Either/Or, yet at the same time not as raw and demanding. He knew how to take advantage of the high-budget studio setting without letting it muck up his near-perfect material. The arrangements on XO start from the man-with-guitar sparseness of the intro to the first track, "Sweet Adeline" -- in which the sounds of Smith's fingers on the fretboard can clearly be heard -- and build to encompass a full band before pulling back for the intricate a cappella harmonies of the album's finale "I Didn't Understand." Whether the instrumentation stays with acoustic guitar ("Tomorrow, Tomorrow") or delicately adds barroom piano (on "Baby Britain" and the lovely waltz-time title track) or vocal harmonies, each and every song comes across unadorned, as if true to its own original, elemental vision.
Lyrically Smith tends toward the melancholy, playing either troubled lover ("I was bad news for you/Just because/I never meant to hurt you," he sings on "Pitseleh") or barely sympathetic counselor to the same ("You're giving back a little hatred now to the world/'Cause it treated you bad/'Cause you couldn't keep the Great Unknown from making you mad," goes "A Question Mark"). In both cases the quality of his craftsmanship makes him sound wise beyond his years. Tough guy, stage-frightened cowboy, this year's model -- whatever. Whoever he is, Elliott Smith is keyed in to something truly magnificent.
-- Adam Heimlich
Rocket from the Crypt
There's music for hanging out and partying with friends, and then there's music for getting absolutely shit-faced drunk, ripping off your clothes and rubbing your sweaty butt against something cool and metallic. Rocket from the Crypt doesn't just hang, so drop trou, folks; this is the real McCoy. RFTC stomps in with a full battalion of horns and battering-ram drums (and with vocal help from the Headcoatees' Holly Golightly) right from the first strains of "Eye on You," leaving bootprints on almost any unsuspecting sternum unfamiliar with the ways of this San Diego-based sleaze-core sextet. The song fades, supplanted by the ripping chords of "Break It Up," with its Beatles' "Revolution" groove and a group call-and-response chorus of "Break it up, break it up, yeah!" Simple men, simple sentiments, and simply inspired blue-collar rock and roll.
The hyper pace continues until half the disc has passed, at which time Rocket from the Crypt eases the tempo slightly for "Lipstick," a gem of a horn-drenched sing-along with lyrics as taxing as "She don't wear makeup, only red lipstick/And she looks so fine." Lead vocalist Speedo's lyrics are pedestrian at best, and his voice is a bizarre amalgam of guys like Shane MacGowan, Mojo Nixon, and Pere Ubu's David Thomas, all of whose voices share a pugnacious flatness in delivery. But what makes Speedo's singing so compelling has nothing to do with traditional vocal quality. Like the band pressing and flailing away behind him, he is clearly 100 percent committed to the songs he's singing.
He strays from his usually gruff vocal attack on two of the disc's best songs. "You Gotta Move" is a looser, more melodic groove for the group, allowing the singer to stretch out with a more relaxed delivery. And "Let's Get Busy," an old-school-style soul tune reminiscent of a 1958 sock hop, shows the entire band's versatility: elastic walking bass, melodic horn figures, ambling organ from the legendary Jim Dickinson, and a general in-the-pocket vibe that allows Speedo's limited singing to take on a romanticism unique to RFTC. But ultimately it's the sheer force of Rocket from the Crypt that carries the album, and it's strong enough to make the two or three clunkers on this 41-minute ride seem unfortunate rather than just plain bad. The term rock and roll started as a euphemism for sex, and RFTC is one of the sexiest discs you'll hear all year. Don't listen alone.
-- Michael C. Harris
Don't expect jazz drummer Leon Parker to plop down behind a twenty-piece drum kit and kick out a cacophonous solo a la Buddy Rich or Max Roach. Not that he couldn't do that. Parker's gig, though, is minimalist drumming -- minimalist to the point that his equipment at some Manhattan club dates in the early Nineties consisted of nothing more than a cymbal. On Awakening, his third outing as a band leader, the thirtysomething Parker continues his journey down a road less traveled by many of his contemporaries. While other excellent jazz drummers are currently making impressive and diverse contributions (Al Foster, Lewis Nash, and Jeff "Tain" Watts, for example), few have taken the leader's chair as boldly or successfully as he has. With unusual instrumental combinations to create music that is sparse yet vibrant, forceful yet hypnotic, his compositions offer tastes of Africa, Brazil, and the Caribbean, as well as a fresh perspective on drumming and jazz in general.
While Parker still adheres to a less-is-more philosophy, most tracks on Awakening come together in a dense rhythmic and sonic tapestry. The rapid-fire, often intense aural action running through much of the album thus approaches minimalism from an unexpected angle. Standard jazz instruments supply the melody on some tracks, primarily in the form of Steve Wilson and Sam Newsome's imaginative sax playing. But what sets Awakening apart is the interplay of the saxes with more than a dozen percussive instruments, including ashiko, caxixi, and steel drum.
As the organic beat of the album's opening track, "All My Life," gradually emerges, Wilson's alto sax trades lines with Tracie Morris's conversational vocals, and Parker's polytonal drumming shapes a rich, melodic rhythm. As that song fades into the distance, "Tokyo" takes its place, where Parker's marimbas, Wilson's soprano sax, and Natalie Cushman's sublime vocals converge in a haunting Eastern melody. It's perhaps the album's finest example of power through understatement, evoking the restrained, almost implied might of jazz giants like Thelonious Monk and the Modern Jazz Quartet.
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"It Is What It Is" is the most conventional track on Awakening, although conventional is a relative term with Parker. Amazingly, it's the only song where the bass makes an appearance, in this case supplying an infectious groove laid down by Ugonna Okegwo, Parker's cohort in the Jacky Terrasson trio. But it's Mingus Big Band alum Adam Cruz who really spices things up, filling out the sound with dark steel drums. Cruz also shines on the aptly titled Afro-Cuban cut "Cruz." Parker shifts to piano on this one, which explodes midway through when Cruz moves from steel drums to cowbell, intensifying an already blistering pace.
The title track brings similar excitement, with Elisabeth Kontomanou's enchanting wordless vocals and Parker doing quintuple duty on piano, snare drum, conga, cowbell, and wood block. Your jaw will drop when you realize it's the only appearance of the usually ubiquitous snare on Awakening, and it will drop even lower when you realize that Parker didn't bother with a bass drum on any of the cuts.
Even with its crisp sound, Awakening demands a probing ear to be truly appreciated. Unusual soundscapes such as the song "Enlightenment," with no instrument but a cymbal, may not always make for good background music, but that's not the goal here. Parker's originality and rhythmic firepower spark a musical carnival. And there's definitely nothing wrong with that.
-- Chris Duffy