Brian Arsenault’s Short Takes: Of Pregnancy and the Art of Singing (or reverse that), a Halo on the Floor and Words to Live By

September 20, 2012

Anne Heaton: Honeycomb (Spill)

Elizabeth Shepherd: Rewind (Linus Entertainment)

By Brian Arsenault

Fertility is in the air around me. One of my sons and his wife just welcomed little Liam and now my oldest and his wife are expecting. Then two albums show up nearly together wherein the artist has been greatly affected by her pregnancy.

Anne Heaton says of her work on Honeycomb that “my daughter’s feet were in my ribcage.”  She says her singing dropped several notes.

Similarly, Elizabeth Shepherd wrote on the liner notes to Rewind that her developing daughter’s “back would press against my lungs and rib cage as I sang. . .” She says that little body shaped her phrasing.

Well, no guy can recommend this, probably without risking wrath, but pregnancy seems to have had a positive effect. Both albums shimmer with life and striking energy.

Anne Heaton

Elizabeth Shepherd

Honeycomb, the CD fancily but inexplicably packaged with creepy pictures, is also packed with extraordinary harmonies throughout.  Heaton employs a bunch of backup singers, including herself, to wondrous effect.  The harmonic choruses on several songs may be the best parts of the album.

Shepherd bends some classic jazz tunes with a sense of Jobim and all that bossa nova stuff we call Latin Jazz for lack of a better name. And we must have our categories, or else critics might have to think independently.

But categories are tough in both these cases as Heaton borders on the eccentric in her compositions and sometimes arrangements.

Almost as uniquely, Shepherd unstandardizes some of the great standards, making then new without violating their integrity.

The title song of Heaton’s Honeycomb is pleasing, like literate up tempo country (there is such a thing, you know, sometimes) with all kinds of interesting changes, harmonies and counterpoint singing.  “Watching You Win” is an ode to “winning,” sort of like Conrad’s novel is an ode to Victory.  It’s in the eye of the beholder.

And in “Viva la Vida” she brings an understanding of life’s changeability that soars somewhere above Coldplay’s hit version.

I’m not real good with New Age stuff so the Eastern mystic poetry should probably be commented on by someone more sympathetic.  But Heaton’s rendition of the “Prayer of St. Francis” could win back sinners to the one true faith. Almost.

Shepherd opens with Cole Porter’s “Love For Sale” which was a tough test for me, as I recently reviewed Cheryl Bentyne’s remarkable album, Let’s Misbehave, which begins with the same tune. No disappointment, though, as Shepherd puts her own Latin tempo spin on it and also contributes her Wurlitzer playing.

Poinciana keeps the echoes of South America resonating. “. . . perfume fills the air.” Yeah.

To tackle Ellington’s “Prelude to a Kiss” in a straight up jazz way is always brave. Singers can get lost in it. But Heaton does it as a duet with Denzak Sinclaire and they pull it off. But only with an under three minute version.  Still, they only sink a little and find their way out.

Only complaint, please, please everyone stop recording “Feeling Good” even if you think you have a new take on it, which she sort of does. But all is forgiven on “When You Are Near” which is superb; truly sultry signing by Shepherd with an able assist from Colin Kingsmore’s drumming and Kevin Turcotte’s trumpet.

Both CDs are tapped into creative creation and both babies are girls, by the way.

******          ******          ******

 A Broken Vow

Empress Hotel: Heavy Halo (Park the Van)

I recently pledged to myself that I was no longer going to write reviews of any albums I didn’t like or at least respect.  I was going to commit myself to the classic role of critic; to  hopefully expand the listener’s appreciation and understanding of the work at hand.  But, come on, some stuff is so bad you just have to be a warning light.

Empress Hotel claims to be inspired by one hit acts of the past as well as artists as significant as Prince and Roxy Music. Well, there’s a reason most one hit bands are exactly that; they disappear after a single hit because they largely stink. And nothing on Heavy Halo reminds me of the aforementioned Prince and Roxy.

Rather, think Abba, Wham, Flock of Seagulls, the worst of Human League (was there a best?) and that famed lyric:  “Yummy yummy yummy, I got love in my tummy.” As Kath said, kind of retro.  80s awful. Any era awful.

This album is so bad I got to thinking maybe it’s a put on.  First song, “Mach Bach,” I thought what the hell is this? Second song, also the album’s title, I thought this is so odd.

It got worse from there.  Or I’m so unsophisticated I just don’t get it.  Chances are you won’t either.

******          ******          ******

Best Movie Line in a Long Time

So I’m watching the end of this film, still don’t know the title, with the wonderful actor Brian Cox and his character has lost his dog in an ugly way. A woman, maybe his daughter, brings him a plump little mixed shepherd puppy and he tries to refuse it saying:

“But I’m old.”

And she says:

“Just give her the time you have. She’ll do the same.”

He keeps it.

******          ******          ******

To read more reviews, posts and columns by Brian Arsenault click HERE.

Short Takes: New CDs featuring Randy Sharp, Sharon Rays, Jack Routh and Maia Sharp

September 14, 2012

By Brian Arsenault

Randy Sharp, Sharon Rays, Jack Routh and Maia Sharp

 Dreams of the San Joaquin (Blix St. Records)

It seems to me that Dreams of the San Joaquin should be the birth of a band.  They are that good together, whatever their sterling individual credits and talents. And San Joaquin wouldn’t be a bad band name.

Throughout there are touches of Johnny Cash — Jack Routh penned several Cash songs; Linda Ronstadt, who has recorded the title song; even early Eagles.  As Ronstadt once said, there is (or was) a form of California Country music.  And Willie could record any number of songs here.  But the sound of this album is also uniquely attuned to the band’s members: the married Randy Sharp and Sharon Rays, daughter Maia  Sharp and family friend Routh.  They variously sing lead vocals and back up and harmonies and a sound emerges that has the sensitivity of C, S & N and the strength of  Willie and his Outlaws in their glory days.

Jack Routh, Maia Sharp, Sharon Rays, Randy Sharp

All have ties to the San Joaquin Valley which has seen Oakies and Arkies come, multi-generations of Mexican farm workers, and more surprising ethnicities including a substantial Portuguese population, the first Sikh place of worship in America and the only town in California, now gone, founded by African Americans.

Several of the eleven songs such as “Burn Day” and “Between the Ice and the Fire” (wish Cash was alive to cover this one) are about love lost or never realized. There are also echoes of Cash in “Beyond the Great Divide” which isn’t only about geography.

The separation brought on by poverty and the search for work and the too often hopeless dream of togetherness is brought to its highest artistic revelation in the title song:

I’m sending you some money — I wish it could be more

            But it’s harder than I thought to find the work I came here for.

The contradiction of a place so beautiful but lousy poor is aching and the longing to be together “in the life we dream about” even more so.  Randy Sharp’s understated yet touching vocals seem to have emerged from stoic men in the Dust Bowl era. And guest Louie Ortega beautifully singing the lyrics in Spanish as counterpoint to Sharp’s vocal on the final chorus makes more universal the experience of days, even years of want.

There’s a touch of Roy Orbison musically and lyrically on “New Way Out” wherein an exit from a relationship without pain is sought in vain.  And the cowboy harmonies remind you that there once was a form known as Country Western, some would argue it was the first form of Country music.

Maia Sharp has a distinctive quality to her voice that is featured on “A Home”.  More about that quality in the review of her own album below, but you’ll need to hear it for yourself if you never have before.

Maia’s Mom, Sharon Bays, lets us know that a bit of drink can make us merry, at least for a while, in “For Old Time’s Sake”. Old times and old timey music are represented on “Or So the Heart Remembers”:

Love just fell apart

            Or so the heart remembers.

In the end, though, however fine so many of the songs on this album, there’s a cumulative effect that satisfies at an even deeper level.  Though most have that as a goal, there are few albums that emerge as an entity, as a fully realized work of art. This one does.

Keep the band together.

* * * * * *                    * * * * * *                    * * * * * *

Maia Sharp

Change the Ending (Blix St. Records)

I agree with the title but let me start at the beginning:

Maia Sharp just has this really pleasing voice; smooth, clear, alluring, deep and throaty. The kind of voice you wish an early girlfriend had when you mostly talked on the phone.

So when she starts off with two keep-time-bouncing songs, “Me After You” and “The Middle,” I settled in like putting on the first comfortable old sweater of autumn and said ‘I’m really gonna like this.’ And I did. For the most part.

Maia Sharp

Musically and vocally Maia’s somewhere between Bonnie Raitt and Carole King.  But this is a better more rounded voice than either.  She writes about broken love, lost love, yearned for love, even rising above love.  Nothing wrong with that and she makes it all so believable.

Maybe therein lies the trouble. When the songs sound like they are all about your own (dreaded word coming) relationships, the (dreaded word) relationships have to be pretty damn interesting.  It’s hard to get outside yourself and by the end I was just a teeny bit bored, even though the lyrics are always intelligent, thoughtful even.

Only on one song does she seem to reach beyond herself and speak to the larger human condition.  “Standing Out In A Crowd” touches, with Janis Ian pathos, the problem of self consciousness and fear of not fitting in. Too bad in a way, since Maia wrote it, that the song’s already been someone else’s hit.

But I haven’t said enough good about this album.  It’s real good. Maia’s singing throughout is terrific and the band supports her in fine fashion. Guitarist Linda Taylor is a stand out.  And for the first half dozen songs this is a great love song album.

It’s just that it saves the dreary, rather self pity songs and an odd little instrumental remix of one of the album’s strongest songs, “Buy My Love,” for the second half.  And made me want to… change the ending.

To read more reviews, posts and columns by Brian Arsenault click HERE

Short Takes: On Hungary Saving European Rock, a Finn in Berlin Out to Lynch, and A Well Suited Guitar Gem

September 5, 2012

By Brian Arsenault

Hungarian Rhapsody

Melody (The Poster Boy)

If Poster Boy is the new “poster boy” for continental rock out of Europe, there may be hope. Only once on its CD Melody does the band succumb to the Eurocrap of weird little electronic sounds and then only mildly on “Traction.” The rest of the time the band — composed of two Hungarians and an expat American — provides a certain charm with what was once called garage sound.

Like some buddies took a tape machine into an old warehouse and just recorded good pop rock. A stripped down sound, hollow, you know, small amps bouncing sound off cement walls.

A European critic has called their album “timeless pop,” but is it timeless or just out of time. The title tune could have been a hit in 1968 maybe by Badfinger but can it now?

Europe is an odd place when it comes to rock. A few years ago on an interminable cab ride from the airport into Milan, I heard in succession an old Abba hit, an Italian pop love song, a twenty year old Al Green recording and the latest U2 hit.  In Rome a couple years later there were posters all over the place for Motorhead and I didn’t even know the band was still together.

Poster Boy says it is unashamedly pop in nature but it’s pop in the best sense,  a bit like Semisonic, a name that sort of describes both bands. Songs are all over the pop landscape. “Once” is like the Beatles meet Carole King which would kinda be the Monkees, right? Only sung by Brian Wilson. The first cut of “It’s Over” (there are two on the album) has a blue eyed soul sound to it, sort of Hall & Oates, but the second one with a vocal by Viki Singh is a real soul record.  (Would like to hear more of Miss Viki).

Then there’s the acoustic love regret “Diffraction” which is really quite a lovely song; “Only a Test,” a bit of art rock with dark imaging that life is “only a test,” but a test for what; and “Pale Blue,” a yearning “this one chance is all we’ll have” sound which may speak for the band as well as relationships.

I know. I just can’t make up my mind. It’s like you go to a club and you like the band. You leave pleased but on reflection, how good are they? Still, it was great to get a CD mailed from Budapest.

A Finn in Berlin

Out To Lynch (TUM Records)

Just when I was starting to think that the Eurockpopjazz scene wasn’t so weird along comes Kalle Kalima. Kalima, an expat Finn living in Berlin, draws his musical inspiration from eccentric film directors — not the theme music mind, but the directors themselves.

With his band K-18 — the band’s name is itself a reference to the movies– he has released Out To Lynch, a tribute to you know who and a follow up to his earlier homage to Stanley Kubrick. There probably was no way an album starring Bob the monster killer from “Twin Peaks” and Frank Booth, played too convincingly by Dennis Hopper in “Blue Velvet,” wouldn’t be strange. There’s even a guy who gets an instrumental credit for playing doors as in, presumably, shut the front door.

Kalima is probably a terrific guitarist, seems it at the start, but who would know as the cacophony builds throughout. I just can’t imagine myself saying too often: “Hey, let’s put on that psychotic music, you know, the crazy stuff from Germany or somewhere.”

Oh, there’s some good stuff.  “Laura Palmer” is a musical Laura Palmer. You see her, feel her, dead then alive, just like in “Twin Peaks”. For a while. Then it drifts. “Mulholland Drive” marvelously musically creates the sensation of a late night fog bound drive. For a while. Then electrononsense.

On the whole, this one is only for the brave, not if you’re already feeling on the edge, or the ledge.

Music to the Third Power

Takin’ it There (Capri Records)

On Takin’ it There, guitarist Graham Dechter lightly bears the burden of being a third generation accomplished musician on the affectionate, smooth “Father”; appreciates what came before on the classic “Come Rain or Come Shine”; and bravely brings a dash of classical to bossa nova jazz on Jobim’s “Chega De Saudade.” (So the album press release had that last point right. There’s good PR, too, you know.)

If the above strikes you as wide ranging, Dechter is certainly that. Accomplished would also be right. As would inventive and thoughtful.

On Cole Porter’s “Every Time We Say Goodbye” paired with his own “Amanda” he hits all the right emotional notes. And silences.  Ably supported and sharing solos with pianist Tamir Hendelman. “Together and Apart” has similar emotional depth. I felt like I’d heard a story of regret.

Oh yeah, there’s also the energy-filled title song and a great take on Wes Montgomery’s “Road Song” to lead off.

Next Graham, how about  some songs with an accomplished female jazz singer. There’s a bunch on the current scene to pick from. And, by the way, love your suit.

To read more reviews, posts and columns by Brian Arsenault click HERE

Short Takes: Of Poetry and Mortality and Angel Pirates

August 18, 2012

By Brian Arsenault

OK, OK, I know this first take isn’t really short but Long deserves some attention:

Losing My Brotherhood: A collection of poems by Bobby Long  (Music Publishing LTD)

Bobby Long


I don’t know singer-songwriter Bobby Long’s music so I come to his poetry fresh. Fresh like the poetry itself in Losing My Brotherhood, crisp as fall mornings, snapping like a brisk breeze in the trees.

The images range from the stark from “On a Bad Day“:

          “I’m a lone diner, a friend without friends . . .”

To the softly romantic as in “On a Good Day“:

          “A flowered dress can never lead to unhappiness. . .”

Still, perhaps one should first ask the question as to whether there can be poetry at all in the age of witless tweets and e-mail catch phrases and abbreviations.  OMG, we all know them by heart by now so I won’t list more of them here.  Do we have time and tolerance for carefully crafted images?

Pray that we do. Long gives us some hope.  At least he knows how to break a contemporary rule or two. Consider also from “On a Good Day“:

             “Coffee and cigarettes lead me to happiness. . .”

Can you still write that? Isn’t cigarette smoking effectively illegal in New York (Long’s a transplanted Londoner) along with big sodas?  Won’t coffee soon be a banned substance along with the white sugar some still use in it?

Oh the horror. Oh the humanity.  Oh well, as Long notes later:

“Manhattan and Berlin are both slowly falling.”

Humanity, humanness is the essence of Long’s poetry.  With poetry, it always should be.

From “A Man for the People‘:

“Maybe I need my father and the whim of a pretty girl’s hair

as it’s all misty and bitter today,

out in the world”

A pretty girl’s hair and other lyricism aside, Long is certainly dark enough for modern times but his mostly free verse isn’t above some occasional internal rhyming and pleasing rhythm.  He is a song writer and a singer after all.

From “You’re No Anne Boleyn“:

“the subdued enclosure of your famous disclosure

has me covering up the bits that you forgot

the fanatical reprieve of all the people you deceive

the rumor’s hit the road

the rumor’s hit the road”

Long’s poems are mostly short.  Crisp, as I said at the start.  A couple of images, fleeting moments quickly over, quirky considerations.

“When the time is right I’ll write for him

Like Salieri did for Mozart

Without the trek of deceit and jealousy”

That’s from “If I Saw Leonard Cohen.“  I like that poem very much.  Lou Reed appears in another poem.  Bobby has good taste in music.

By the way, there are some drawings by Ben Edge interspersed throughout the book that kind of depress me although they are very good.  They’re a lot like drawings in kids’ books that I read long ago. They depressed me too. But Long’s poetry doesn’t.

I haven’t yet read all the poems in Losing My Brotherhood. I’m glad about that.  Not just because I like Long’s work and I’m not anxious to be done with it.  Also, as with short stories, one wants each of them to stand on its own and not be amalgamated with all the rest.

There’s a bit of Brautigan in Long’s work, succinct, right to the heart of the matter.  Does anyone remember Richard any more.? In my youth, he was for a time all the rage.  Then again, sorry DK, so was Shelley once.  I haven’t seen a young girl with a book of Shelley’s poems in her hand for a long time. Pity.

Death Clarifies

I saw Amy Winehouse  performing somewhere on some cable station last night with a great band and superb backup singers.  She was in a word, GREAT.  When Jimi died it stopped all the foolish arguing about who was the greatest rock guitarist.  He was. We knew. When Amy died it should have ended all the talk about who the best singer of her generation was. She was. And we know it.

She wasn’t like Sinatra at all and yet she was. Like Frank, she just stood there and the music flowed out of her like it was easy, natural, why she was here. Wish she could have stayed longer but she may have been needed elsewhere in eternity.

Your Next Assignment

RJ of RJ and The Assignment may look like a scary pirate on the cover of his last CD but his playing is heaven sent.  I mean this guy makes wonderful tunes out of the M*A*S*H theme and “Someday My Prince Will Come.” Really. Deceiving Eyes (the title) there may be, but your ears will ring true.

To read more reviews, posts and Short Takes columns by Brian Arsenault click HERE.

Short Takes: Of Beatlemania, Christian Zealots, No Sex in the Sixties and Beauty’s Wounds

August 13, 2012

An Occasional Column by Brian Arsenault

The Beatles Their Golden Age

I thought only Queen Elizabeth I had a Golden Age.  This curious little DVD by Les Krantz , known mostly for sports reporting, is primarily a bunch of old newsreels (an ancient form of media), movie previews (now called trailers, I believe) and photos of album covers.  No Beatles music is heard — must be a rights issue. Plenty of screaming girls and crowd scenes at airports.  George Harrison saying Patty wouldn’t date him at first but “everything turned out all right in the end.” How ironic is that.

The one great insight of this largely tedious  60 minute “film” is unintentional.  All of those newsreel commentators sniping at the Beatles and their fans and just dripping with sarcasm were so out of touch with what was happening that they missed the arrival of what has been obnoxiously called “youth culture”, which totally changed entertainment and arguably the Western World.

We also are reminded that the “Christians” who led the record burnings after Lennon’s little remark about the relative popularity of Jesus and the Beatles were the Klan. And what’s happened since John spoke those killer comments? The Beatles have sold more albums than anybody in history and “Christianity” has devolved into: a huge institution that protected priests who buggered little boys and elected an ex-Nazi pope; a bunch of boring mainstream Protestant denominations whom almost no one pays attention to; and those crazy evangelicals who have nearly attained cult status with their odd beliefs.  Who knew from Hutterites anyway?  Of course, the Church of the Politically Correct may be even more offensive and is in ascendancy but that’s for another day.

The Me Generation by Me . . . Growing Up In the 60s by Ken Levine

This book is in places screamingly funny.  The guy was a principal writer of Mash, Cheers and Frazier, after all.  And for those who didn’t grow up in L.A. it’s instructive that Dick Van Dyke was the PA announcer at his kid’s football games, that Love-Ins were just another place to pick up girls and that UCLA was where the geeks and nerds went while the cool kids went to USC.  Who knew (if you grew up in the East).

Mostly, though, it’s about Levine’s unending unsuccessful attempts to get laid, sort of a Woody Allen of the West that gets a bit tedious by the end.  For the sake of all of us, Ken, just put your money down and buy some action if you are that inept.

Movies You May Have Missed

There’s a good chance you didn’t miss this first one but I did so I thought I’d mention it for the also unaware. I promise not use words and phrases like “compelling” and “coming of age film” whenever discussing movies.

Stealing Beauty (1996), is a compelling coming of age film by famed Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci (Last Tango in Paris, The Last Emperor) .  But seriously folks, this is a beautifully shot film set in the Tuscan hills (how could it not be beautiful) which is about people trying to figure out how to live together.  Jeremy Irons is a dying poet who has realized there is nothing worth paying attention to but beauty and Liv Tyler is beauty made all the more compelling by kindness and decency in an indecent world. She is a 19 year old virgin who just has not found anyone who is worth it. Yet.  As a character in the film reminds us — beauty wounds the heart.  Get wounded.

A Foreign Field (1993).  Wounds of another kind and the hope of healing are at the center of A Foreign Field, another ‘90s film with a very fine cast: Alec Guiness, Leo McKern, Jeanne Moreau, Geraldine Chaplin, Lauren Bacall and more.  Several write-ups on this film since its release describe it as sentimental but that’s only if one thinks that love for a brain damaged comrade, a prostitute, even a soldier of Nazi Germany are by nature “sentimental.”  If one finds them remarkable in the face of the horrors of a war now decades past, this little movie is a revelation.

I’m sure you can get both of these from Netflix, Amazon, and other sources.


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