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Review: Kardemimmit, Introducing Kardemimmit

Introducing Kardemimmit
[World Music Network-digital download only (2012)]

Kardemimmit is a Finnish group composed of four young women who sing and play the Kantele, which is the national instrument of Finland. The Kantele is a zither of 15 or 38 strings that is played by plucking the strings, and produces a sound similar to an autoharp. The group has been together for over ten years and released two independent recordings in 2006 and 2009. This is their first worldwide release.

The quartet performs in a number of different styles including reki-style singing, Pethonjoki valley style and runo-song, mixing traditional material with their own compositions. They have a modern, fresh sound that is unique, yet reflecting the tradition that it is drawn from.

The music is light and airy, with all four women singing, harmonizing and playing various sized kanteles. Some of the songs are mournful traditional laments, others more up-tempo and catchy with a few instrumental pieces mixed in. It’s joyous music that reflects the sound of modern Finnish folk music.

—Jim Lee (Simi Valley, CA)

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Review: Karen Collins & the Backwoods Band, No Yodeling on the Radio

Karen Collins & the Backwoods Band
No Yodeling on the Radio
[CDBY (2012)]

“Country music is as good as it’s ever been,” Ray Price once remarked in an interview backstage at the 2008 Country USA music festival in Oshkosh, WI. “The problem is that they don’t always play country.” If Price should ever see Karen Collins & the Backwoods Band in action, he surely would give thumbs up for the Washington DC-based honky tonkers whose original music is rooted in the late 1940s through the late 1960s. Song selection, sentiment and stylistically, it’s all here.

Western Virginia native Karen Collins sings in a mountain primitive country-ish voice that’s a cross between Kitty Wells and Dolly Parton. Guitar stylist Ira Gitlin never lacks for the right riff, string-bending action and tone to fit every occasion while bassist Geff King and drummer David Lopez provide a steady two-step backbeat. Song-wise, Collins’ title track is undoubtedly the disc’s most infectious tune while “Salvation Saloon” and the traffic jam fodder of “On the Belt Way” —with its funny lines “I’ve swatted flies, eaten cold fries on this highway”—trail close behind. The twang riveting “That There Boogie,” the disc’s lone instrumental, recalls 1960s classic “Buckaroo” from Buck Owens’ Buckaroos, though its hillbilly-ish title will likely make grammarians cringe.

With groups like Karen Collins & the Backwoods Band chipping away at the public perception of real country music, Price’s words will always ring true.

—Dan Willging (Denver, CO)

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Review: Paul Thorn, What the Hell Is Going On?

Paul Thorn
What the Hell Is Going On?
[Perpetual Obscurity/Thirty Tigers (2012)]

Tupelo-born songwriter Paul Thorn’s soul streak runs deep. On What the Hell Is Going On?, he takes songs from Lindsey Buckingham; Ray Wylie Hubbard (who guests on vocals); Allen Toussaint; Buddy & Julie Miller; Elvin Bishop (who also contributes guitar); Rick Danko of the Band; Paul Rodgers (of Free); Donnie Fritts and Billy Lawson; Wild Bill Emerson; Foy Vance; Eli ‘Paperboy’ Reed; and Big Al Anderson, Shawn Camp and Pat McLaughlin and wraps them up in a big southern country blues sound that would be at home in only some of the Pentecostal churches he attended in his youth.

Every number on the album is thoroughly ensconced in Thorn’s own personality without sacrificing the versatility of the source material. So, songs like the Lindsey Buckingham-penned opener, with its pop riffs and sweeping, heavily harmonized chorus, is recognizable, but then a slide guitar solo takes the song out of the California/Brit Pop world and drags it down south. Things get really dirty on Hubbard’s “Snake Farm” (which is much closer to the original than almost any other cover on the album); “Shed a Little Light” and “Take My Love With You” are performed as secular hymns. “Wrong Number” and “She’s Got  Crush on Me” are just perfect soul. Elvin Bishop’s raucous guitar on the title track is a highlight.

The album is full of excellent lyrics, but the best story is “Bull Mountain Bridge.” It’s a modern bootlegging story mixed up with “Big Bad Leroy Brown,” about an Alabama ladies-man marijuana grower named Stone Fox Dan that gets mixed up with a local tough named Bull Mountain Hawk.

Take him on down below the bull mountain bridge
Tie his hands and throw him in the river
We might as well give him his farewell party tonight
Knock him in the head, he’s better off dead
Break his arms, throw him in the river
If anybody asks, just tell them he committed suicide

The biggest thrill of this album is how song-focused it is. What the Hell Is Going On? is a must for fans of blues, soul, and southern rock.

—Jack Hunter

Click here to have a listen over on Thorn’s website.


Feature Review: Willie Nelson, Heroes

Willie Nelson
[Legacy Recordings (2012)]

Unless you’re among the legion of hardcore devotees who worship everything Willie Nelson has released in recent years, ya gotta admit that the Red Headed Stranger can be uneven at times. Luckily, Heroes doesn’t follow that suit. It’s a tight and focused record recalling disparate elements of Nelson’s 1966’s Country Favorites: Willie Nelson Style and 2004’s poignant It Will Always Be. Heroes is more of a true country record than anything else of late, characterized by reflective lyrics, beautiful melodies and majestic arrangements that revolve around a steel guitar that glistens one moment, chimes the next and soars to the clouds after that. And in the midst of it all, Nelson’s signature splendid finger-picked solos against his nylon guitar strings are still an amazing thing to behold.

A theme of loneliness prevails with “Every Time He Drinks He Thinks of Her” and the waltzing “Hero” that ponders where a former barroom fixture has fallen lately. “A Place to Fly” unveils killer lines such as

A road is like a river that sings when I’m alone
I’m sitting aside a window of light that floods in my eyes
and keeps me from finding my way

Few selections are sung solely by Nelson but are graciously shared with such luminaries as Merle Haggard, Jamey Johnson, Billy Joe Shaver, Ray Price, and Sheryl Crow. Nelson’s son, Lukas, is really showcased here; an up-and-coming roots rocker whose vocals appear on nine tracks and bear a familial resemblance to his father’s, just twang-ier and edgier.

As with any Nelson record, there’s bound to be a reprisal of favorites, such as the pair of Bob Wills’s classics “Home in San Antone” and “My Window Faces the South” that also surfaced on Country Favorites: Willie Nelson Style. These swinging renditions will not have you pining for Country Favorites’ legendary backing squadron, The Texas Troubadours, since they’re equally torrid with steel guitarist Mike Johnson and jazz pianist Jim “Moose” Brown shredding it up. Similarly, Floyd Tillman’s “Cold War with You” that has appeared on several Nelson albums over the decades—with and without co-vocalist Ray Price—is lovely here in its own right.

As in the case of any Nelson record, humor is never far behind. Here it manifests on “Come Back Jesus” where the title catch phrase is followed by ‘and pick up John Wayne on the way,’ a projected world peace savior. Ironically, a few verses later there’s a funnier line about how Wayne could achieve world peace: ‘blow them evil bastards from out past the atmosphere.’ Undoubtedly, the album’s undisputed ‘hit’ will be the outrageous “Roll Me Up” (‘and smoke me when I die’), an open admission to Nelson’s well-documented herb of choice. With Nelson, Snoop Dogg, Kris Kristofferson, and Jamey Johnson all inhaling and passing around lines, the thought of Nelson’s shriveled-up carcass used as a blunt is a strange but funny one but hands down preferable to any imagery conjured by a Naked Willie.

—Dan Willging (Denver, CO)

This is probably NOT an official video ….

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Review: Chicha Libre, Canibalismo

Chicha Libre
[Barbès Records (2012)]

Chicha is Spanish for any variety of fermented beverage. In the late 1960s, it was also a fermentation of various musical styles that were “loosely inspired by Colombian cumbias but incorporated the distinctive pentatonic scales of Andean melodies, some Cuban guajiras, and the psychedelic sounds of surf guitars, wah-wah pedals, farfisa organs and moog synthesizers.” The style could easily be forgotten about by now, but, thanks to Chicha Libre’s ongoing efforts, it’s slowing entering the North American consciousness.

The second effort from the Brooklyn-based sextet is an all-original, mostly instrumental affair loaded with action-impact arrangements that mix traditional cumbias with surf guitars, mesmerizing Latin rhythms and elements of psychedelic pop for an explosive world dance party. The group’s heart and soul is Joshua Camp, who alternates between jamming on electravox, mellotron, and synthesizers and often enters into spellbinding call-and-response interplays with guitarist Vincent Douglas. The array of Latin percussion, electric and four-string quarto guitars, and arcade game sounds causes the dense soundscape to shift and change constantly. At time it feels like a spaghetti western soundtrack with its background vocals trailing off in the distance. On the suave “L’age D’or,” a rumbly, gravelly male voice conjures up images of a self-appointed sexy, hairy bare-chested Latin male adorned with gold chains stirring potent cocktails for his heavily hair-spayed blonde date.

The title sums it perfectly—a groovy cannibalism of sounds but don’t ask if it ever eats it young.

—Dan Willging (Denver, CO)

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Review: Orpheum Bell, The Old Sisters’ Home

Orpheum Bell
The Old Sisters’ Home
[Self-released (2011/2012)]

These days, it’s no surprise to find a musician influenced heavily by Tom Waits. It’s not particularly unusual to find a musician who imitates Waits’s voice, either, though it’s usually done tongue in cheek, because, seriously, we all know that Waits is not exactly a “good” singer, no matter how awesome he sounds. Orpheum Bell‘s lead singer and primary songwriter Aaron Klein, however, has a voice that is an absolute dead ringer for Waits, particularly on the leadoff heavy, stomping march “Poor Laetitia.” And with his Ukrainian origins providing a healthy dose of the same Eastern music that has made up a bulk of the (for lack of a better word) “weird” material from Waits, you have a project that could easily be mistaken for identity-less copycatting.

Fortunately, that’s not the case with The Old Sisters’ Home. For one thing, Orpheum Bell’s musical influences are as diverse as the backgrounds of the musicians (members are from Ukraine, Holland, Armenia, Ohio, and Michigan). Gypsy jazz, country, and swing are the lowest hanging fruit in their musical stable. And Klein is backed up by the sweet voices of Katie Lee and guests like Jennie Knaggs to keep things from getting too heavy and dark. Such textural extremes are found throughout the album; in fact, the band’s main strength seems to be their excellent control of divergent textures. Violin against xylaphone, trumpet against guitar, accordion against banjo. For a band that hasn’t made much use of percussion in the past (this, their third album, is the first with a drum kit), the album is exceptionally rhythmic.

Musically, everything on the album is interesting, and the astonishing depth is revealed in repeated listening. But the highlights are with the title track, a showcase for violinist Henrik Karapatyan; “Poor Laetitia”; the eastern Europe-meets-bluegrass mashup “Family Pictures”; the duet “Chain Stitched Heart” (possibly the most purely cheerful sounding song on the record); and the finale “Khadaya Ptitsa” (“Skinny Bird”). The lyrics (which are in Russian) to “Skinny Bird” again call to mind the Waits influence to close out the record, with a chorus that alludes to a children’s rhyme set to a background that’s nearly as frenetic as a Balkan brass band:

Skinny bird, fly away home
Skinny bird, the river’s close at hand
Skinny bird, I’m with you
I’m with you, I’m with you

The album was released digitally late in 2011; it is getting a very nice CD package and rerelease today.

—Jon Patton (Baltimore, MD)

“Poor Laetitia” is a free download at the following link: http://glgpub.com/_/audio/Orpheum-Bell-Poor-Laetitia.mp3

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Review: Andrew Luttrell Band, Paint by Numbers

Andrew Luttrell Band
Paint by Number$
[Self-released (2012)]

The opening of Andrew Luttrell Band‘s Paint by Number$ (yes, that’s a dollar sign in the title) is a minute and a half of guitar solo. It showcases the band’s most obvious talents: improvisational, retro, jammy folk rock with nods toward The Dead, Knopfler, Neil Young, and many other artists from four or five decades ago. The guitar is so prominent in this track, though, that it hides Luttrell’s clever lyrics on the first listen:

Quiet dawn, breathe upon Auvers-sur-Oise yard
Bold greeting of the day is graced with little disregard
By the church, a sunrise like a burning wick aglow
Fractal rays of light, they shine upon the old chateau
on the landscape plains

Luttrell paints a lot of fine character details with his lyrics, which like those above don’t really form a coherent picture until you’ve made it through the whole song. That’s no doubt an intention, given that painting by numbers gives you a mosaic, much like an impressionistic painting. The paintings (by Luttrell) in the accompanying CD booklet are often abstract in the same way. It’s a deeper theme that holds the record—which has wild, often disjointed stylist swings among the 10 tracks—together.

Although folksy plainspoken requirements seem to come easily throughout, and the smooth The Band-like faux soul of “Three’s a Crowd” is one of the better tracks on the album, on some harder material like “You’re Stealing My Car” and “Sara Sota” (which has Luttrell’s voice filtered through a distortion effect), Luttrell just can’t get mean enough to be convincing. But one of the harder songs, “Draggin’ That Line,” a riff-heavy piece that sounds, musically, like a mid 1970s rock band time traveled to the 1990s and decided to give grunge a go, seems to find the right combination of sound, processing, and melody for his voice in a pure rock setting. The band really locks in on that one, too, whereas the other two harder tracks sound piecemeal.

When the album focuses on the lyrics, though, it’s perfect: “Sister Goes Bad” (a story about a nun leaving her convent), the brilliant closer “Making Senses,” and “Thursday Morning Two Forty Five” (as well as the opener, again) are all composed of masterful strokes.

—Jack Hunter