Red House Records
Greg Brown's latest CD opens with a love song for the lonely in the 21st century. "It's raining sheets of rain, everything is cold and wet/Nobody's going out of doors./They're all at home living it up on the Internet/So I guess nobody's lonely any more./'Cept you and me babe." It's refreshingly uplifting in its moody dreariness and its uniquely characteristic blending of Brown's ocean-deep vocal grumblings juxtaposed against Bo Ramsey's brightly spare lead guitar riffs.
Covenant is a promise to the hard-core Browniacs, a testament to the freedom of independent record labels hitting targeted audiences like a smart bomb coming at them live in concert, at home on the Internet, or at the one store in your city with the huevos to carry releases without waiting for assurance that they'll be chart movers.
The album quickly settles into Brown's hyphen-proof musical terrain, forging blues out of acoustic guitar rolls and Ramsey's atmospheric underpinnings on electric guitar. The music may not be startling, but the lyrics will win over fans. A good, solid Iowa folk/rock riff behind lines like "My blues go walking/ They go looking/ Someone's burning/ What someone's cooking" results in an irresistible groove. Brown's lyrics evolve out of something primordial and gut-level into something literal and even cerebral, hitting the listeners on all fronts.
Recording on a label he founded, Brown can make himself as comfortable on disc as he is on stage, settling in beneath an old fishing hat and a tank top and strumming a backyard intimacy. "Lullaby" is one of his most honest songs, an ode to enduring love that opens with the line "I look at you and I think of bed" and returns to the paradoxical refrain of "oh babe, you make me sleepy." Languishing in oft-told tales of wet woods and red wine, Brown sings, "You make me feel like lying down/Let your hair down completely/When you pull on that raggeddyass old cotton nightgown/Oh babe, you make me sleepy." Only Brown can get away with a sentiment like that, making his listeners yearn for a love that fits so fine we have no choice but to cuddle up and dream to it.
Tomorrow's Sounds Today
Gushing is a problem when it comes to Dwight Yoakam. It's hard to be objective -- let's face it, the man is golden. He can sing no wrong, and his latest album, Tomorrow's Sounds Today, is rock-solid testament to his vocal/nasal ability. It's not just the crafted lyrics or the precise instrumental arrangements, but the flawless combination of the two, layered with Yoakam's distinctive, hangdog vocalization that creates such country-western perfection.
Almost every song on the new disc is a hit-in-waiting. They're all danceable, sing-along-able, and each carries with it that high lonesome Bakersfield Yoakam sound, accented here by pedal and lap steel guitarist Gary Morse --whose work ought to be awarded with a Grammy for "Best Supporting Musician." Morse's playing is deeply in tune with the emotions of each song.
Also performing on the album are Jim Lauderdale and Jonathan Clark, both respected and talented in their own rights, and the legendary Buck Owens, who sings backup on "The Sad Side of Town" as well as performing two duets -- the "Bonus Bucks" -- at the end of the album.
Yoakam's strength and interest lies in classic heartbreak country, as evidenced on tracks like "A World of Blue," "For Love's Sake," "A Place to Cry" and "The Heartaches are Free," easily the finest song on the record. Yoakam's high, quavering voice was handtooled by the good Lord Himself to sing these tearful odes, some hard rockin', some ballads, but all along the lines of Hank Williams -- there's not a lot of diversity here, but what you've got is so damn tasty that you're satisfied to listen again and again and again.
Of special note is the cover of the Cheap Trick song, "I Want You to Want Me." This never was a rock song. It was always country -- the rhythms, the words, the vibe -- all country. I always thought a woman would end up covering it, but from the first strains of high, clear steel guitar before Dwight begins to strum along and croon about beggin' and needin' and lovin', it becomes clear as a winter morning that no one else could have done it such justice.
There I go, gushing. But what else can you say? He's Dwight Yoakam. From his painted-on jeans to his pink satin shirt, he is Country & Western. Listen accordingly.
Sam Bivens and his Denver Jazz Orchestra
Dingbat Production Company
Sam Bivens has put onto this CD just one of many performances by his Denver Jazz Orchestra; they perform weekly in the mile high city at Turk's Supper Club, where the album was recorded. Bivens is a good composer and player, but a rather slack conductor and detached on standards. This album has its ups and downs.
Of eight tracks, four are compositions by Bivens, while the other half are standards. Bivens has been playing for a lot of years and keeps on turning out music that is very personal. His treatment of tunes like "What is This Thing Called Love" by Cole Porter, however, isn't quite as reflective -- definitely a drawback because it's always a treat to hear a player take something old and reconceptualize its meaning. A few of Bivens' originals rise to the occasion, however. "Midwest Express," "Uptown," and "On the Throne" are pieces that really say something about this man's down-to-earth sense of humor and perception.
Bands the size of the Denver Jazz Orchestra, with about 20 members, can make a blaring entrance into any tune, even if it's not called for. The twists and punches of sound that come from the orchestra can trick the inattentive listener into thinking blunders are being made quite often, but in this case, it is simply Bivens' tone being voiced. Even so, Bivens seems to have let it go a little too far for this reviewer's taste.
All in all, Uptown is a good CD; not great, but good. It's got the pros of Sam Bivens himself, a wonderful composer and trumpeter, plus the very capable cats and kitties of the Denver Jazz Orchestra. But it's also got the cons of Sam Bivens, a conductor whose swing is nearly lost in the brass. The best part of this CD, though, is there are no pretensions and everyone is simply having a good time.
Tonight and the Rest of My Life
Warner Bros. Records
The first time I heard the title song of Nina Gordon's CD, I thought she sounded a little like Madonna with Sarah McLachlan lyrics, words that set you into a variety of moods. The words were catchy and suited the mainstream-alternative sellout style.
Then I heard "Now I Can Die" on the radio. The oddball lyrics -- "he likes to try on all my clothes but not my underwear/" -- were quirky but catchy, and ultimately limited in their appeal. This CD loses a lot of impact in repeated listening.
"The End of the World" is a remake of the great oldies hit written by Arthur Kent and Sylvia Dee, and is the only real failure on the album. The original song has such a poignant rhythm, and Gordon's voice, though perfectly capable, falls short of the sweet original recording.
Tonight and the Rest of My Life is worth downloading, or, if you have the extra money, buying. Gordon's slightly angry lyrics are mindful of Tori Amos, and her soulful voice is reminiscent of Jewel. I liked "2003," a happy upbeat tune, "Badway," "Like Horses in the City" and "Hold on to Me," a melancholy love song.
Overall the vibe of the album is positive and the songs grow on you in the short term, even if they do diminish in long-term memory.