The Northeast Kingdom
As a member of the great Boston band Blood Oranges, Cheri Knight was alternative country before alternative country was cool. But among those in the know, Knight's singing and songs had long been special. Her plain but moving alto and tales about the cycle of life and death left fans spellbound.
When Blood Oranges broke up not long after its finest release, 1994's The Crying Tree, Knight set upon a solo career. Her fine debut, The Knitter, didn't get much more notice than her work in the Oranges had, but now, as one of the first signings to Steve Earle's E-Squared label, she has an opportunity to reach the larger audience she deserves. And it's an opportunity she's jumped on: The new The Northeast Kingdom includes some of the best work of her career.
As always, Knight's latest songs are at once mystical and gritty, her stories filled with inscrutable, provocative images. "Bend and kiss my face again / Lay me down again, in the river of sin," Knight's conflicted narrator sings to a secret lover on the title track, metaphorically summing up an act filled as much with release as it is with guilt. Beyond Knight's writing, though, The Northeast Kingdom thrives on the remarkable arrangements provided by the Twangtrust, a.k.a producers Earle and Ray Kennedy. While on many cuts, Knight's new band amounts to the old Blood Oranges (mandolinist Jimmy Ryan, guitarist Mark Spencer, drummer Will Rigby and Knight on bass) with an added sideman or two, the Twangtrust has managed to find strengths heretofore unrevealed. Where the Oranges' more countrified numbers had tended to be a bit stiff, the twangiest cuts here (the honky-tonk shuffle "White Lies," the chugging Southern rocker "Black Eyed Suzie") are imbued with an unmistakable swing. Even on numbers as airy and delicate as the acoustic "All Blue," an insistent groove remains front and center.
And front and center is where Knight belongs. From the keening "Dar Glasgow" that opens the album to the stripped-down reprise of "Black Eyed Suzie" that closes it, The Northeast Kingdom is filled with compelling music, executed flawlessly. It's a thrilling showcase for a special talent who's made the most of her moment. (****)
-- David Cantwell
Neutral Milk Hotel
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
With its down-home swampiness and hootenanny attitude, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea transcends the indie-pop, lo-fi strata in which it's likely to be defined. Neutral Milk Hotel creates a hectic, self-contained instrumental universe of accordions, horns, marching-band drums, guitars, banjos and zither. It's a sound that might have suggested some bizarre retro animal out of the '60s. But thanks to lead singer Jeff Magnum's wail of a voice and the music's white-noise leanings, the Hotel's eclecticism is decidedly postmodern -- as in Captain Beefheart meets the Carter Family.
Created under the tutelage of producer/auteur Robert Schneider of Apples in Stereo, Aeroplane is a deceptive listen, to say the least. Its simple songs might border on friendly were it not for the home production, odd instrumentation and Magnum's mildly unpleasant voice, a roughness that somehow fits perfectly. The Hotel's world is filled with wanton loss and ache, various freaks of nature, parents who drink until they disappear and strangely endearing sentiments like, "I will be with you when you lose your breath / chasing the only meaningful memory you thought you had left." Sure, these themes have been covered before, but when surrounded by music of such patent originality, the discomfort rings true.
All the songs run together, literally, providing unity without uniformity. The finale of one track bleeds into the intro to the next, with fragments of prose repeated in various contexts. Aeroplane is disjointed enough not to qualify as either standard country or classic rock, yet just smooth enough to hum along to. An oddly pleasing paradox, indeed. (****)
-- David Simutis
Jim Lauderdale can't buy a hit. Oh sure, he's written plenty of them for other singers. His songs have been gracing George Strait albums for years and, just recently, he penned the Patty Loveless smash "You Don't Seem to Miss Me." But like successful fellow Nashville songwriters Matraca Berg and Gretchen Peters, Lauderdale can't score on his own to save his life.
One explanation might be that, when compared to Strait and Loveless, Lauderdale really ain't much of a singer; his delivery's restricted to a pretty compact vocal range. Even so, his best lyrics are wrapped around luxurious melodies that rise and fall dramatically; they're the sorts of songs that work best with a singer who can stretch out and get comfortable -- like Strait or, at the very least, George Jones. Written with Jones in mind, Lauderdale's 1989 version of "King of Broken Hearts" is some kinda swell. But then you hear Strait's version of it on the Pure Country soundtrack -- with the superstar borrowing faithfully from Lauderdale's original phrasing and arrangement -- and suddenly you realize, "Oh, that's how it was supposed to sound."
Perhaps it's wrong to make too much of Lauderdale's vocal weakness, though. For one thing, when it comes to country singer/songwriters, Lauderdale's singing chops are far better than, say, Bill Anderson's or Kris Kristofferson's, both of whom have had more than their share of big hits. For another, Lauderdale's songs -- bolstered by smarter-than-average lyrics and, of course, those melodies -- are just too good not to hear.
Yeah, the title track of Lauderdale's latest release, Whisper, would certainly be better if he could get his singing voice to "whisper." And yeah, ending "Take Me Down a Path" with a couple of bars of "nah, nah, nah's" might be a wiser choice for a singer with a more musical instrument. But they're both fine performances. Same goes, in fact, for nearly every one of the album's Buck-Owens-meets-new-country cuts. And if an instant honky-tonk classic like "She Used to Say That to Me" doesn't help Lauderdale crack Nashville on his own accord, then we can at least take solace in the knowledge that George Strait will likely sing the hell out of it on his next album. (*** 1/2)
-- David Cantwell
It was bound to happen. Just when the world seemed thoroughly immersed in Spicy marinade, along comes another cadre of photogenic, harmonizing Brits to steal the Girls' flashy, prefab throne -- if only for the time being. But the four lovely lasses in All Saints aren't as homogenous as they might appear.
Much like the Spice Girls, All Saints have a racially diverse makeup (meaning they have one African-American member). And while they too have the necessary fashion-mag appeal, there is a sly sultriness to their glamour that implies a more forceful sexuality. In terms of the music, All Saints, their self-titled debut, sounds unquestionably black. While the Spicers gladly hog the middle ground between cheery, white-bread pop and the sassy urban tip, the Saints stay surprisingly true to the streetwise heart and soul of the best R&B.
"Never Ever," All Saints' opening track and a number one hit in England, mixes blues and gospel, making the most of its church-organ bump-and-grind and Sunday-morning testament to lost love. The first single, "I Know Where It's At," lifts the piano opening from Steely Dan's "The Fez" and attaches a substantial hip-hop groove supplied by producer Karl Gordon. "Heaven," co-produced by Neneh Cherry associate Cameron McVey, and "Take the Key" also check in with considerable heft. Ditto "Under the Bridge," a pointed ode to drugs and desolation tucked into the guise of a funky heartbreak number.
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One of the disc's few letdowns occurs when All Saints momentarily lapse into Spice Girls territory on "Let's Get Started." Its whirling, automated beats simply fail to register. Better to keep it dark, ladies. (***)
-- Craig D. Lindsey