Monday, May 26, 2008

Bell X1 - Flock (2008 in the USA)

Both Bell X1 and Flock, their latest CD, have become huge hits in the band's native Ireland but it's only since the disc's American release in February that they've developed any kind of following on our side of the Atlantic Ocean.

As Bell X1 is probably unfamiliar to most of you a little history is in order. Singer-songwriter Damien Rice was one of the founding members of a band called Juniper in 1991. He left in 1999 due to differences with the band's label early in their recording career. He has since become well known as a solo artist both here and abroad. After Rice departed the remaining four members of Juniper carried on and changed their name to Bell X1, the name given to the jet Chuck Yeager flew when man broke the sound barrier for the first time.

Many Irish bands have a tendency to waive their shamrocks proudly, and while I'm sure the band is proud of their heritage, there is nothing overtly ethnic about Bell X1's music. This does not mean they are making generic rock 'n roll. Lead vocalist Paul Noonan sounds like Coldplay's Chris Martin and fronts a quartet that is adept at writing rhythmic and melodic ditties with very quirky and original lyrics. On the opening track, "Rocky Took A Lover," we are immediately greeted with these unique lines: "She said 'What a wonderful way to wake me/ You weren't so nice last night/ You're such an a**hole when you're drunk'/ He said 'At least I'm OK in the mornings'." On "Bad Skin Day" Noonan sings, When I wake in the morning of a bad skin day, And I can't face my lover on a bad skin day, Am I this alone?"

Bell X1's songs aren't all about the lyrics. There are many prog-rock and electronic flourishes, as well as a piano riff reminiscent of Steely Dan on "My First Born For A Song," that make them just as interesting musically as they are lyrically. Bell X1 is an art rock band that avoids the sub-genre's instinctive pretentiousness because of their ability to create radio friendly pop records. Listen to "Flame" and "Trampoline" as examples. Many in the rock 'n roll press have compared them to Radiohead but my money says these guys are better because they make music that is both intelligent and accessible.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Shelby Lynne - Just A Little Lovin' (2008)

I'm one of the many who discovered Shelby Lynne only after hearing her for the very first time with the release of her sixth CD, I Am Shelby Lynne, in 2000. Even though it was eleven years after her debut this album was the reason she won the "Best New Artist" Grammy in 2001. While winning that particular award is hard to explain every CD this non-traditional country singer has released from that point forward has been uniformly excellent. She may arguably be my all-time favorite female artist.

It says on the cover of Lynne's latest release, Just A Little Lovin' that it was inspired by the late, great, Dusty Springfield. I was surprised that the idea for this album was suggested to Lynne by her friend, Barry Manilow, after the two were discussing Springfield's music. Taking Manilow up on his idea turned out to be a brilliant move. She offers up nine Springfield songs, adds one of her own, and turns in a perfect performance on every single one.

What makes this CD different from most tribute albums is that Lynne just doesn't mimic her idol's greatest hits or try to recreate the sound of the original recordings. She simply sings the Springfield songs she could do the most justice to in her own style. For instance, because Lynne believes that "Son Of A Preacher Man" from Springfield's most famous album, Dusty In Memphis, was performed perfectly in it's original version she deliberately avoids it on Just A Little Lovin'. Yet Lynne culls four songs from Dusty In Memphis for inclusion here. Despite the absence of "Preacher Man" many of Springfield's biggest American hits are represented including, "I Only Want To Be With You, "The Look Of Love," and "You Don't Have To Say You Love Me."

All ten low key tracks were recorded using sparsely written arrangements at sessions helmed by legendary producer Phil Ramone. The band's goal was to support Lynne and not get in the way of her vocals. They succeeded mightily. A prime example, and one of the most interesting tracks, is the inclusion of "How Can I Be Sure," originally a big hit for The Rascals. American audiences are largely unfamiliar with Springfield's version because it was only released in the United Kingdom. Lynne covers it here with a only a solo acoustic guitar as accompaniment.

Springfield was one of the few female imports of the British Invasion and was a rare vocal talent in a decade known for its rock 'n roll. Lynne is exceptional in her own right. Her earthy, R & B tinged country voice is the perfect vehicle to showcase the songs on Just A Little Lovin'.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Bett Butler - Myths & Fables (2007)

Jazz singer Bett Butler admits she is not the most prolific recording artist on Earth but if she continues to release an album once every six years and the results are as good as they are on Myths & Fables you won’t hear me complaining. In Butler's case quality surely tops quantity. Despite hailing from San Antonio, TX, a city known more for country music and Americana rock, her obvious influences are the more progressive forms of jazz.

Butler's vocals alternately remind the listener of Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Lena Horne, all singers who deserve their place in the pantheon of the great vocalists of jazz. While the spirits of those three talents live within her soul Butler has weapons in her musical arsenal that they never possessed because she is also a talented pianist and composer.

Myths & Fables, is Butler's first CD since her debut, Short Stories, in 2001. She and her bassist/producer Joel Dilley, who also doubles as her husband and has a recording career in his own right, offer a highly eclectic set of songs that stands apart from most of today’s vocal jazz because lyrically her work is on a higher level than the genre normally requires. Butler sings about an unhappy German painter, Gabriele Munter, on "For Gabriele" and a family’s dark emotional state of mind on "Secrets." She takes on the roll of an unfulfilled lover on the funny "It Ain’t Over 'Til It’s Over" and tells us all how much she loves her dog without getting sappy on "Angel In A Dog Suit."

Butler is also not afraid of tackling politics and racism on "Nothing To Be Proud Of." It's a fine song that proves she is a thinker as well as an entertainer. It's not nearly as terrifying or as condemning as Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit" yet her societal concerns are still pointed and valid. (For added emphasis the painting on the cover of the disc, shown above, is by artist Courtney Reid and is also titled "Strange Fruit.")

At times Myths & Fables appears to be just as much Dilley's album as Butler's. He wrote most of the arrangements for songs the singer wrote at her piano. Significant instrumental breaks allow Dilley, trumpeter/co-producer Cecil Carter, and a host of others to glide from bossa nova, to blues, to be-bop, to avant garde jazz, and more with very little effort. This is not smooth jazz. Kenny G was not not invited to the party and that is a very good thing.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Various Artists - New York, New York: The City In Song (2000)

Jazz may have its roots in New Orleans but New York City has always been synonymous with the art form that has sometimes been labeled as "America's Classical Music." The Big Apple is as much of a jazz town as New Orleans so this CD, New York, New York: The City in Song, available only through The Metropolitan Museum Of Art, is an entirely appropriate salute to the city that never sleeps. All of the song titles reference America's largest city in some way.

The CD is loaded with vintage jazz. Louie, The Duke, and The Count are all here and there is even an Armstrong/Ellington duet on "Drop Me Off In Harlem." Stan Kenton contributed "Stompin' At The Savoy" and Buddy Rich shines on the lengthy "West Side Story Medley." Peggy Lee, Dakota Staton, and Lena Horne all sing their hearts out while The Modern Jazz Quartet, Benny Green, Bud Powell, and George Shearing all show off their instrumental virtuosity.

I may be nitpicking here but where are Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Goodman, and Billie Holiday? Jazz doesn't get any more New York than those three yet even without their inclusion the disc is something you will want to own.

You can buy the CD at the museum or through their online store.