Ezra Charles and the Works
Modern Years
Icarus Records

In certain circles -- including, I've got to admit, mine -- local showboating pianist and bandleader Ezra Charles is perceived as something of a joke. It's an attitude arising from Charles' ever presence on the local scene. Like his female counterpart, Miss Molly, Charles has been working the local club and party circuit since what seems like time immemorial. And the fact that he's still plugging away with an obviously out-of-favor (at least with critics and MTV kids) style of rock and boogie, and still wearing those God-awful keyboard ties and electrified rooster hairdos, seems to indicate an inherent failure to keep up with the times.

That's one way to look at the Ezra phenomenon, anyway, and if that's where you're coming from, the release of Modern Years -- Charles and the Works' first CD release since 1989's Design for Living -- will inspire a great yawn of indifference; you've heard this shtick before, and you're already either an occasional fan or someone who couldn't care less.

But if, for instance, you just landed here in Houston after years on another planet, without the baggage of long-standing assumptions and biases, you'd have to be a fool not to notice that what Charles does, he does extraordinarily well. What he does, of course, is professionally presented nightclub boogie and blues, complete with stagy dress, flashy piano tricks and blaring horns. The whole package gets shown off to good effect on Modern Years. There are missteps, to be sure, such as the "Hothouse Flower" line: "In the battle of the sexes, we joined forces and won," which is just awful, or the too-goofy-to-be-ominous "The Night Game." But when Charles and company are sticking to the boogie turf, as they do on "Get in Line," "Dunno Watcha Call It" and "Bolivar Ferry," there's really not much that can top them for sheer good-time professionalism. The musicianship is fine, the songs jump and the production is as sharp as you could ask for. All of which makes Modern Years -- for all its lack of modernity -- something more than just a souvenir to take home from your next Ezra Charles and the Works show. As out of time and out of place as Charles' shtick may seem to dedicated followers of musical fashion, you've got to admit that the man rocks the keys like no one else in town.

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-- Brad Tyer

Donna B -- The Ebony Cowgirl
Mo' Betta Country
Black Fire Records

There's not much point in harping here on the gimmick angle of a black woman playing country music. That ground's already been broken by honky-tonker Mary Cutrufello, who long ago transcended the novelty of circumstance with the sheer strength of her songwriting and guitar picking. Problem is, once you discount the novelty, you've got to judge Mo' Betta Country just like you would anything else, and without that gimmicky crutch to prop it up, this thing falls flat on its butt.

Not that Donna B doesn't have a pretty voice. She shows it off a cappella on the opening track, Patsy Cline's "Sweet Dreams of You," in which those silky pipes are employed in a reading with all the technical familiarity and soulless luster of a pre-game national anthem. With that out of the way, the singer sinks into sentimental schlock about the rosy, nostalgic glow of childhood ("I Wish Home Was Like It Used to Be," "Little Brother"), pseudo-countryish ditties ("Knock, Knock," "Love Is a Victim of Circumstance") and not-quite-clever panderings to novelty such as "Steel Magnolia (The Girl Biker Song)" and "Mine Is Bigger Than Yours (The Belt Buckle Song)."

Musically, the playing is decently produced, and the presentation of what Donna B has to offer is professional enough, if somewhat sterile. But calling the result country is like calling that tape you made in the sound booth at the mall a debut. No evil involved, certainly, but still kinda icky.

-- Brad Tyer

Allan Andrew Finch
Living in the Now
Rochester Records

There's something about folk music -- or folkish music built around introspective lyrics and slow-strummed acoustic guitars, anyway -- that doesn't lend itself to the backing of digitally programmed drums. The limitations are doubtless budgetary, but still, that pre-programmed beat, no matter how well it's pulled off, adds an inevitability to these songs that doesn't sit well, as if there's no room in the arrangements to spread out or, God forbid, perk up. The nine songs here -- eight by local songwriter Finch and a cover of Dan Ford's "Possibilities" -- are unrelentingly bittersweet, sung in a girlish falsetto that's not compelling enough to overcome the too-often maudlin sentiments contained therein. Finch writes well enough, about major confusions and minor revelations, lovelorn misunderstandings and misunderstood love, but it's all packed into a format that does little to attract empathy, or even attention.

It may sound like faint praise, but there's some interesting guitar work here, contributed by Wes Day, who also programmed those drums and plays bass. But since it's Finch's album, you've got to look to his contributions for the disc's defining moments. There's one in the opening lines of "How Many Times" -- "How many times have I played these chords before? / How many times have I played these chords? / I don't know if this song's about love at all, but I know it's all about you." Don't know who that "you" may be, but it ain't me.

-- Brad Tyer

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