The first cut on Stag is a bold coming-out statement for Amy Ray as a solo artist. Her galloping mandolin rhythm maintains an edge usually softened by her Indigo Girl cohort, Emily Saliers. Ray proclaims her kinship with the bad seed of the song and acknowledges her own complicity in driving "Johnny Rottentail" to a burnin' and twistin' end on the gallows. And she's just getting warmed up.
Ray started Daemon Records two years after the Indigo Girls signed with Epic Records, seeking a sense of balance that would keep her connected to her punk roots and help independent-minded musicians to produce and release their own music. Stag isolates Ray's musical vision with a stack of songs that wouldn't quite fit on an Indigo album. "A long break and some time away with some things to repair," is the way Ray characterizes her suspended state in "Lazyboy," and the breadth of her expression throughout the album celebrates her newfound trust in her own instincts after a 20-year communal experience with Saliers.
The songs rise out of a series of road trips into spontaneity and rebellion, playing and recording in basements and garages with old comrades from a career that has steadily drifted away from the backstreets where Ray finds rejuvenation. The Butchies make their way to the center of the album, recording five of Stag's 10 songs. The band falls into grooves behind Ray's lyrics, crackling with impatient activism, erupting in the call to arms of "On Your Honor" and reaching their zenith on the album's tightest cut, "Measure of Me," a stark narrative that directly confronts gender impositions and evolves into an elegy for the loss that follows succumbing to the expectations of others.
Ray saves her most pointed work for The Butchies. "Laramie" fires the charge that "tolerance it ain't acceptance" over a murky musical backdrop cut by a slicing guitar and refreshingly frank language. "Those rednecks are just doing/what the classy fucker's thinking," Ray cries in a hate crime reference. Her targets are clear and her salvos are bold. "Hey all you jokers, hunting season's over," calls the refrain, "Hey coalition, lay down your mission."
In "Lucystoners" Ray targets the closed world of Rolling Stone rock, honing in on the refrigerator at the boys' club "with its little magnets of poetry, finding one hundred different ways to say blow me." It's an elloquently edgy outing of "faggot bashing poetry" and the white rock boys who are just saying, "love me please."
Two solo tracks and one song each with 1945, The Rock*A*Teens and a fierce foursome of Ray, Joan Jett, Kate Shellenbach and Josephine Wiggs round out the recording odyssey that found Ray driving through blizzards from Birmingham to Brooklyn in search of her staunch old punk roots allies. "Hey Castrator" nails the grungy garage sound with the help of Joan Jett's driving rhythm guitar and searing, soulful vocals. "Late Bloom" and "Black Heart Today" are moments of escapism, with Ray pushing a jagged guitar against "Lazy geese and the weather warm./Oh my life of humidity" in the former and her belovedly swampy lines that eat Spanish clementine by the waterside and are at home in the plaintive, falling melody of the latter song.
Stag's most arresting cut is its most glaring departure. "Lazyboy" is an ethereal folk-sounding song, a seductive whisper of a lyric about squandered days and a wrongful daze dancing across Ray's crisp acoustic fingerpicking against a pitter-pat background. The song elevates "a funny stare" on a refreshing album full of "your beauty shop hair/coming down."
-- Owen Perkins
Virgin Records America, Inc.
Nobody does Tom Waits like Tom Waits. But John Hammond comes pretty close. On Wicked Grin, a special selection of Tom Waits songs performed by Hammond, homage is lovingly paid to one of the most prolific songwriters of our time. Hammond treats Waits' material, which has been performed by everybody from Sarah McLachlan to the Eagles, with the magnitude of respect, dignity and quirkiness that it deserves.
For hard-core Tom Waits fans, the first inclination may be to shy away from this CD, wanting to stay true to the real deal. But that would be a mistake. To begin with, Waits not only endorses the album, he produced it, working closely with Hammond in a unique collaboration. And Hammond, whose career has now spanned nearly 40 years, is a master of intense, solo-acoustic blues. He has played everything from coffeehouses and nightclubs, to concert halls and international festivals. On this CD he masterfully brings to life Waits' rumbling, image-packed, dirty blues.
Most of the 12 Waits-penned tracks on this CD work. "Heart Attack and Vine," the saucy "Til the Money Runs Out" and "Get Behind the Mule" are the standout tracks of the bunch, but overall, the entire CD manages to conjure the rich imagery Waits is so well-known for. On the only non-Waits composition on the disc, the 13th track, "I Know I've Been Changed," John Hammond fans get a special treat as Hammond pulls out the stops for this traditional gospel tune.
Whether you are a John Hammond fan or a Tom Waits fan, you cannot go wrong with Wicked Grin. The marriage of Hammond with Waits' material is definitely a happy one. The synthesis of Hammond's Delta-style blues and Waits' eclectic and gritty portraits is raw and powerful.
-- Suzanne Becker
Righteous Babe Records
Despite the wintry photographs that punctuate the packaging of Ani's brand new 2-CD set, she is in the summer of her career! She is all growed up ... and man, is she horny! Well, Revelling, the first CD is, anyway. Thanks in part to the saxy stylings of Maceo Parker and Hans Teuber, and the trumpeteering of Shane Endsley, Revelling is funkified, jazzy and downright fit for a lounge. Well, not your typical lounge ... .
Much like the metaphorical contrast of the CD artwork to the accomplishments of this musician, Reckoning, the mate CD of this set, is a snowfall to Revelling's thunderstorm, sunset to Revelling's high-noon, and home to Revelling's travels. It is DiFranco's exploration of what has influenced Ani herself and the politics of this weird little world.
This album showcases both the talented band that DiFranco has been leading and touring with in recent years, and the ingenious complexity of her own musicianship as she hammers the full range of instruments in about half the offerings. She is as lyrical as ever and explores her many musical personalities, the emotions and journeys that shape her songs, and the relationships she has with other impassioned artists.
If you've only sampled from DiFranco's prolific catalog and think of her as "just another angry feminist," you need to clear your head and start over; DiFranco is not just anything. Revelling/Reckoning may be the perfect place to begin again, as the diversity of sound, subject matter and instrumentation will give you a raindrop of the familiar amidst a torrent of discovery. Although political, outspoken and righteous as ever, this babe has a peaceful, poetic flipside that often gets lost. But not this time.
This album is more funk than punk and as much politics. If you've neatly filed DiFranco under folk/punk, it's time you unlabel and discover the range of reasons for the seasons of Ani.
-- Carrie Simison
Live in New York City
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
The best cuts on Live in New York City are not the classic rockers, but the lower profile alternate versions and acoustic revamps. Springsteen's epic concert performances are only slightly streamlined this time out. The E Street Band is in all its glory on the resurgent "Badlands," burying any lingering aftertaste from the '80s and showing they can still make a verb out of roadhouse on "Ramrod." On "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out," a rock 'n' roll exorcism, baptism and bar mitzvah bundled into one waterside revival meeting, they entice the audience into the "river of happiness" made of jangling melodies and wailing horns.
True to the form established on the tour, whose culmination at Madison Square Garden provides the material for the double CD, Springsteen keeps the focus off his biggest material, even shunning some of the well-worn classics from the tour when he got around to culling the tracks for the disc. The E-Street energy still plays well in concert, but the confidence to get quiet pays off throughout the most understated selections.
Among the reworked highlights is an amped up "Atlantic City," which benefits from The Band's acoustic rock cover, leading The Boss to take the mournful original in a new direction. The steel guitar and faux Woody Guthrie vocals of "Mansion on the Hill" are elevated to a higher plane alongside Patty Sciafia's yodeling harmonies. But most noteworthy is the complete makeover Springsteen gives to "Born in the U.S.A.," a new Reagan-proof rendition on solo guitar that is as haunting as the studio version is glorious.
The reunion of Springsteen and Clarence Clemens is cause for celebration, and although the big man's jamming sax is present throughout, it's at its best when the rest of the band shuts down for the introduction to "The River," quietly segueing into Springsteen's elongated harmonica riff. And the long, wailing solos on "Jungleland" jutting up against Roy Bittan's piano breaks are a gift of soft refusal and then surrender from a loyal following ready to embrace the good old boys turning back time to their finest hour.
-- Owen Perkins