Carolyn Wonderland and the Imperial Monkeys
Truck Stop Favorites Volume 2 (cassette)
Pulse Productions

If you've been following the Monkeys' frequent live performances of the past year, you already know that the band has been writing new songs, and here they are -- seven co-written by Wonderland and guitarist Eric Dane, and three penned by former guitarist Kenny Blanchet. It's a strong batch that justifies the publishing deal the band signed with Warner-Chapel after last year's SXSW. But while the band has grown tighter and the material stronger, Wonderland herself has for the most part taken a step back from the limelight to let her voice play as just one more instrument, rather than as the band's guiding light. You could look at that two ways: with disappointment at Carolyn's failure to flaunt her spine-tingling voice, or with happy amazement that the rebalanced package works just fine.

Truck Stop Favorites marks a quantum leap in sound quality over the earlier Groove Milk tape, and if Blanchet's amicable departure left any holes in the band's sound, Dane and Wonderland fill them admirably. The new songs steer closer to the rock half of the band's blues-rock equation, and while Wonderland seems a bit more restrained than she needs to be on most tracks, "(She Sings) Amazing Grace" leaves no doubt that she can still belt 'em out when she wants to. The honky-tonk drive of "Busy Getting Lazy" is my personal fave here, and "Happy Shoes" -- an original that sounds a little too close to the band's crowd-pleasing cover of "Comfort Table" -- is the palatable low point.

The cassette was rushed into circulation in time for the SXSW just past, and while I still don't know what it takes to get someone signed to a label deal, I'd venture a guess that this collection points in the right direction.

-- Brad Tyer

Carolyn Wonderland and the Imperial Monkeys play every Tuesday night at the Last Concert Cafe.

Bluest Eyes
November Records

Storyville is Malford Milligan -- so says the disk's sleeve. If you've never heard of Malford Milligan, or his former band, Austin's Stick People, you don't need to look much farther than those same liner notes to find out the kind of esteem in which Milligan's voice is held. Among the session men employed on Milligan's debut are ex-Arc Angels Chris Layton (drums) and Tommy Shannon (bass), former Joe Ely and John Mellencamp guitarist David Grissom, guitarist and Austin ever-presence Stephen Bruton and once-and-future Eagle Don Henley, who contributes background vocals to the title track.

I can't quite figure out whether it's better to think of Milligan as the male Carolyn Wonderland (for the sheer youthful exuberance of his bluesy virtuosity) or the white Corey Glover (for an uncanny similarity to the Living Colour frontman's vocal timbre). Hardly matters, really, cuz the point is that Milligan's got some monster pipes. Hardly matters, too, whether he's working them in the service of the power-ballad title track, the crunchy Texas funk of "Rain of Love" or remakes of Peter Gabriel's "Mercy Street" and Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come." What matters is that the boy can sing like the wind blows, with polished power and raw soul. Right now he sounds like a prodigy. Put twenty years of road work in him, and he just might turn out to be a legend.

-- Brad Tyer

Townes Van Zandt
The Nashville Sessions

Townes Van Zandt
Rear View Mirror
Sundown Records

Like the elusive Townes himself, these disks are mysteries, with semi-cryptic liner notes that fail to identify dates, bands and other fun stuff Van Zandt fetishists will want to know. But again, like the man who recorded them, The Nashville Sessions and Rear View Mirror are filled with gut-wrenching songwriting that renders even basic trivia obsolete.

The Nashville Sessions, from what I gather, is a reissue of an original Tomato Records LP, and the availability of "Rex's Blues," "The Snake Song" and ten others on CD makes it a must-have for the sort of people who collect Van Zandt records, which is to say, for anyone who's been drawn into the hyper-examined life and loves of the man many consider our greatest living songwriter, bar none.

Rear View Mirror is a live greatest-hits collection, recorded, according to the only publicist who would venture a guess, sometime around 1978, somewhere in Texas, and released here for the first time. Of the two disks, this is the shinier gem, with bare-boned renditions of "Pancho and Lefty," "For the Sake of the Song," "Flying Shoes" and "Tecumseh Valley," and a delivery of "Our Mother the Mountain" that'll send chills down the spine of anyone who's ever watched love turn to hate. There's some fine guitar work here, and an uncommon and highly effective fiddle adding edgy atmosphere. Townes himself is in strong voice, and he delivers the kind of performance of which his legend is made.

Unconfirmed rumor has it that Tomato, Townes' original label, is working on a boxed set of Van Zandt duets with the folk and country stars he's so strongly influenced over the years, and that collection

-- tentatively projected for release some time later this year -- is sure to add one more facet to the legend. Until then, though, there's plenty of material here to satisfy.

-- Brad Tyer


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