After the disappointing commercial showing of their last release, The Golden Age, it would be easy to forgive David Lowery and the rest of Cracker for continuing to streamline the formula that earned them a gold record with 1993's Kerosene Hat. But rather than further refining the post-punk hick-rock of their last two efforts, Cracker crumbles all over the place on Gentleman's Blues.
Peering further into the weirdness of the soul, Cracker's fourth full-length release inches ever closer to the bumpy back-road sonic territory of the Band and current Americana icons like Wilco. But they're also going through an identity crisis: In particular, do we want to rock, or do we want to experiment? Though not an official double album, this sprawling, 24-song (that includes the unnamed bonus track) collection plays out like two releases, each sounding half-finished. As a result, the whole production feels half-assed. The proceedings are so polarized that it's like they all took a vote and decided to honor everyone's input.
Not that Gentleman's Blues isn't reasonably successful as a mainstream rock release. The lead-off track, "The Good Life," doesn't pull any punches, boasting a quality, radio-friendly hook. "Seven Days" could be a lost cut from Sticky Fingers, complete with funky organ fills and female backup singers. But a few tracks into the fray, and the other Cracker makes its appearance in the form of "James River," a minor-key, brokenhearted dirge. As drippy guitar twang and tasteful pedal-steel licks lap at the foundation of Lowery's sad-eyed tale of wanting, a violin rises, piano and drums begin to make themselves known. But by then it's too late. The music simply falls away in a disaffected blur.
And it goes back and forth like that for the majority of Gentleman's Blues: a rocker or two followed by an unhinged series of fleeting moments, then it's back to being a pop band again. Through it all, Cracker never has an opportunity to gain momentum. It's the sound of a band foiled by the democratic process. (** 1/2)
-- David Simutis
Bela Fleck and the Flecktones
Left of Cool
Bela Fleck has come so far, yet changed so little, since his formative years with super-hip backwoods fusionists the New Grass Revival. More than 15 years later, he's still the same well-studied, retiring virtuoso plucker. Chances are, he'll always be part hippie spirit, part technical obsessive -- the sort of guy you can easily picture killing free time polishing the guitar-shaped bodies of his banjos or hanging out at the corner music store talking shop with the staff.
Those quick to size him up -- or, for that matter, quick to lend criticism -- might be inclined to label Fleck the bluegrass Pat Metheny. After all, both attract a somewhat similar mix of granola types and anal-retentive music geeks, and both favor a light-on-the-ears, yet intricate, instrumental accessibility. But where Metheny's jazz underpinnings are often informed by rock, Fleck's primary reliance on the banjo makes the rural origins of his sound inevitable, no matter how he tries to dress them up.
And try he does on Left of Cool, returning to the four-piece Flecktones format of his first three releases, while attempting to expand his stylistic reach and loosen the band's commercial boundaries. Perhaps Fleck's guesting on Dave Matthews's latest CD inspired more conventional pop excursions like "Communication," which features Matthews, and "Step Quiet" with Amy Grant. Granted, it's tempting to want to indulge the Flecktones their newfound overtures toward a certain mass-consumable predictability.
But, alas, the Flecktones weren't programmed to be predictable. The clearest proof of that is "Communication," which -- with Matthews's Sting-like vocal turn -- sounds like an unused excerpt from the Police vet's new age Jazzercise days. Fact is, Fleck was born to play what he feels, not write about it (choice lyrical lowlight: "Been savin' all my loving for a rainy day / I didn't know that love was gonna hurt this way"). The same can be said for the Flecktones' synthetic drum specialist Future Man, whose formless stint here as a rapper and vocalist under the poorly concealed "alter ego" Royel is the therapeutic equivalent of a warm meal and a nap.
Pats on the back for effort aside, Left of Cool succeeds when the Flecktones clear out all the big-name rabble, zip it up and play. Bassist Victor Lemonte Wooten's all-sensing command of his stick is as superhuman as ever on nimble, well-constructed instrumental workouts such as "Throwdown at the Hoedown" and "The Big Blink," and Fleck shows a willingness to move away from his comfort zone like never before, experiencing fits of inspiration on guitar synth, mandolin, sitar, gut-string guitar and more. New addition Jeff Coffin, in his bid to become the Flecktones' indispensable fourth link, supplies ample dynamics and color on saxophone, clarinet, flute and an unearthly contraption called a singing bowl. In the end, it would've been best if Coffin's bowl was the only thing doing the singing on Left of Cool. (** 1/2)
-- Hobart Rowland
Pleasure and Pain
Pleasure and Pain is Roy Rogers's seventh release. And yet it's packed so full of uplifting moments that it sounds like the work of newcomer rather than an artist who's been making music for more than 20 years.
For the uninitiated, Rogers is a slide guitarist, vocalist and songwriter from San Francisco. He's perhaps best known for his work as a member of John Lee Hooker's band in the 1980s, and also served as Hooker's producer for a well-received series of releases from the early part of this decade. On his own, Rogers has always cut a wide swath through blues convention, with a healthy dose of swamp-inflected funk and a little acoustic chicanery thrown in for good measure.
Although more basic in texture than past efforts, Pleasure and Pain succeeds because of the strength of Rogers's songwriting. The dusky, laid-back first track, "Down Here in the Big Empty," promptly alerts the listener that this isn't merely another showy-guitarist-plays-the-blues outing. On "You Can't Stop Now," a rocking duet with pop/metal showboat Sammy Hagar, Rogers exhibits admirable restraint, grounding the song in a swanky Faces-like groove. Perhaps the biggest leap, though, is "My Rose in the Snow," a duet with Shana Morrison, Van's daughter. Its cinematic quality, sweeping Southwestern feel and gorgeous soloing that carry the listener straight to its desert setting. Pleasure and Pain is a far more than anyone could've expected from Rogers, which makes this late-inning triumph twice as sweet. (***)
-- Jim Caligiuri
Turn the Heat Up
Etta James and Koko Taylor comparisons notwithstanding, it would be reasonable enough to call Shemekia Copeland's Turn the Heat Up the most interesting debut album by a female blues singer since Jayne Cortez surfaced a few years ago. A big-throated belter in the tradition of Taylor and Big Mama Thornton, the 19-year-old daughter of the late great blues guitarist Johnny Copeland churns up quite an emotional froth. Her bold flame of a voice scorches "Turn the Heat Up," "Cold Feet," "Has Anybody Seen My Man?" (highly suggestive of Koko's signature tune "Wang Dang Doodle") and other tunes, most of them penned by co-producer John Hahn and his collaborators.
But the reality is, the New York City-based singer never sounds as though she's living inside the experience of Hahn's lyrics. And what's more, she has to make do with ham-fisted, cliche-ridden performances from local sidemen, including guitarist Jimmy Vivino (Late Night with Conan O'Brien, Al Kooper's Rekooperators) and a pianist who deserves a special W.C. Handy award for "wackiest overplaying."
Copeland's talent is shown to much better advantage on her own slow blues composition "Ghetto Child," in which she's palpably involved with the words and guitarist Mike Welch provides her with thoughtfully played lines that are the antithesis of the in-your-face guitar grandstanding prevalent elsewhere. Copeland also cuts to the heart of the Don Covay classic "Have Mercy" without getting upended by the band. Let's hope Copeland works off some of that adolescent energy, concentrating more on singing than hollering, and pray she hooks up with producers and musicians who will be able to heat things up without making us, more often than not, run for cover. (** 1/2)
-- Frank-John Hadley
1st and Repair
There's something about the hilly territory around Austin that seems to sprout young guitar aces like wildflowers. There was the granddaddy of them all, once known as Little Stevie Ray Vaughan, followed by the likes of Ian Moore, Widgeon Holland and Guitar Jake Andrews. Now add Monte Montgomery to the list. He grew up in the Hill Country, living in Luckenbach with his music-making mom, singer/songwriter Maggie Montgomery. Even as a teenager, young Monte seemed a triple-threat talent, backing up his six-string chops with an impressive voice and songwriting ability.
Montgomery is also smart enough to turn at least one nifty trick to distinguish himself from the pack: On 1st and Repair, he's managed to make a straight-up guitar outing based mostly around acoustic riffing. That no-frills approach gives the whole affair a distinctive vibe that's rather captivating, given the generic formulas that frequently plague it.
Which is not to say that 1st and Repair is a bad album. Rather, it's a document of an artist still searching for his sweet spot as a singer and a composer. At times, 1st and Repair sounds like an unplugged Doobie Brothers release.
All too frequently, Montgomery strives unsuccessfully for the sort of slick, blue-eyed soul that's worked just fine for, say, Paul Carrack. The result is frequently over-mannered vocal inflection, and songs with hackneyed themes such as "Love to the People." 1st and Repair is not so much a work in progress as it is a work by an artist in progress, which gives the disc a certain something that's hard to deny: potential. (***)
-- Rob Patterson
Monte Montgomery opens for Marcia Ball at Party on the Plaza Thursday, August 27, and headlines a show at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge later that evening.
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