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Hunting for a Good Tune, May 9, 2011: A smattering of reviews from Driftwood’s editor. Reviews of Keren Ann, The Damnwells, and John-Alex Mason

Welcome back to the place where Driftwood’s editor shoots his mouth off about a few of the notable releases that came across his desk—or at the very least some releases that he just want to write something about. These reviews are based on quick, visceral listening sessions with the goal of picking “the tune you must have” from each.

Keren Ann
[EMI (2011)]

Keren Ann’s sixth album continues her tradition of writing, producing, and engineering her own album. This do-it-yourself spirit is notable on a big label like EMI. The approach gives her material a deeply personal feel, and her production skills can carry a broad range of music. On tracks like “Run With You,” “All the Beautiful Girls,” and “She Won’t Trade It for Nothing,” she crafts inspiringly hypnotic downbeat material.

Many of the best tracks on the album all have one thing in common: They’re soft and easy-going and they suit her unadorned, plainspoken voice. But on much of the record’s pop material, like “My Name Is Trouble” (the album’s opener and a song that sounds designed to be a radio single) and “Sugar Mama,” the same voice that sounds intimate and comforting elsewhere just sounds lifeless and unexpressive.

Unsurprisingly, my favorite tracks here takes the best parts of the quiet and bouncy material and puts them together with with the slow, thoughtful stuff: “You Were on Fire” has the layered, uplifting background of her pop songs and pairs it with a slow tempo and a guitar sound as comforting as a big soft feather bed. I think I could take a nap in this song and have the most pleasant dreams. Which just goes to show that “sleepy” is not always a negative. “Blood on My Hands” is also a great example of how the intimate feel can lend a really playful atmosphere to even a murder ballad.

Jack’s pick: The title track. Too much comment would spoil the surprise in listening to this one.

John-Alex Mason
Jook Joint Thunderclap
[Naked Jaybird Music (2011)]

As the title suggests, Jook Joint Thunderclap is a bluesy album that hits pretty hard. John-Alex Mason has the growly, meaty guitar tone and voice you’d expect from a southern soul singer. On “More Than Wind,” the fiddle, mandolin, and sparse guitar stay out of the way and give him a good vehicle to really showcase his gritty pipes. Elsewhere on the record, though, busy arrangements interfere with the groove. A near-constant djembe during “Rolling and Tumbling” is distracting and enervating. A marimba on “Riding On,” though initially interesting, ends up marring the track through its oveuse. “Signifyin’ Monkey” and “Free” are less cluttered and have a smoother groove.

Guest emcee Cody Bumside raps on a couple tracks, and in the end, these provide the most interesting moments on the album, because that’s when it really starts to feel like a party.

Jack’s Pick: Mason ends with “Whisper,” a soft acoustic number that again puts his voice and guitar playing front and center. This is an excellent way to hear him, and makes me think it’s a shame that his talents elsewhere were drowned in overwrought arrangements.

The Damnwells
No One Listens to the Band Anymore
[Pledge Music Recordings (2011)]

Together for 10 years  together, The Damnwells must be doing something right, because people certainly want to listen to the band. It’s more than just that the amount of soul in Alex Dezen’s thick, gritty voice is a rare thing to find in a modern indie rock band, or that the band can craft really lush arrangements without a trace of sloppiness, or even that he can write a melody that is simple without being, well, too simple. Wait, actually, it’s all those things.

The music itself isn’t particularly adventurous, though it is strong; and anyway, the big pleasures on a record like this, full of 1-2-3-4 guitar riffs and metronomic drum parts comes from the lyrics. Like on “Werewolves”:

Your heartbeats on the fault line
of love and doubt and waste of time
I’m not here to here to show you up
Break you down or change your mind

And jeez, this is just an opening verse, chanted against an acoustic guitar on one of the softer songs on the record. The chorus opens up and hits a type of grandness and resolve I’m not used to hearing outside of records by Paul Simon. Humor makes a few brief appearances, sometimes in the more ponderous acoustic material, where it’s most welcome:

Oh beautiful for spacious skies
What a shitty soundtrack for our lives
We run out of the good years
No we are not afraid
We’re just underpaid
And waiting for the world to disappear

“Let’s Be Civilized” follows this and contains some rather uncivilized language. It’s a blast, full of horns, hand claps, and bounciness, recalling the irony and smirk in the disc’s title.

The lyrics on every song here shows the same attention to craft, and reading through them it’s no surprise to learn that Dezen graduated from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop in between the release of their last album and this one.

This is an outstanding album. It’s been living in my CD player for a few days now.

Jack’s pick: I have to pick just one? Sigh. “Werewolves.” The song is like bittersweetness liquidfied and injected into your soul intravenously.

—Jack Hunter

One comment on “Hunting for a Good Tune, May 9, 2011: A smattering of reviews from Driftwood’s editor. Reviews of Keren Ann, The Damnwells, and John-Alex Mason

  1. KEREN ANN is her spelling as shown on album cover, musta been a typo on the header, it looks right in the copy. Jack’s review makes me want to check it out. She sings a very effective duet on a disc I hope to review soon of English adaptations of the songs of Georges Brassens by Franco-American Pierre de Gaillande. John-Alex Mason also looks like a good find. Cheers.

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