Barefoot Zen?

Barefoot Zen?
Namaste, Y'all...

Friday, June 25, 2010

Salvation in the Streets

The good stuff is out there.  You've gotta dig past the Rolling Stone covers donning Lady Gaga and the headlines about Miley Cyrus, claiming she's 'all grown up now', while donning a costume that makes her look like the proprietor of a S&M aviary.    The good stuff is, likely, going unplayed on the radio, and your local Best Buy employee will merely stare blankly into your eyes when you ask for it.  "Alejandro Escovedo?" he'll repeat after you ask for his latest release.  "I don't think he works here.  We got a Alex Escobar, though."  Just give him a reassuring hug and leave him there with his life size Justin Bieber cardboard cutout, then head to Decatur CD or Wuxtry or even I-Tunes.  The good stuff IS out there.  

In a summer that boasts very little in the way of new releases that promise to capture the imagination, I'm reveling in three new CDs that have kept me from losing hope in a world where "American Idol" runners-up tour arenas and twelve-string troubadours, toting three chords and the truth in their tattered cases, play to half-full coffeehouses and sell their own homemade CDs in the back of the room.

So, behold -  The Real Deal:  

"Street Songs of Love" - Alejandro Escovedo.  If you lived in Austin, TX, you'd know the locals think he belongs on a musical Mt. Rushmore.  Outside of that weird and wonderful town, however, he dwells in that wonderful Zevonian category known as 'cult favorite'.  He's opened for the Sex Pistols, fronted for punk/alt-country bands like True Believers, The Nuns, and and Rank and File.  Widespread fame, nonetheless, has still artfully dodged him.  

But almost dying of hepatitis a few years ago may have been the best thing that happened to this former punker's career.  To help him pay his medical bills, a few friends recorded a tribute CD of his music.  Lucinda Williams, Los Lonely Boys, John Cale, Steve Earle, Cowboy Junkies, M. Ward, Vic Chestnut, Son Volt, and others offered up loving versions of his tunes.  People took notice and he dwelled, well, a little less low on the radar.  But it was his one-two punch of "The Boxing Mirror" and "Real Animal" that proved that his near death experience paved the way for a musical resurrection.  "Street Songs of Love" completes a trilogy of albums about survival, redemption, and regret.   From the Velvet Underground-tinged "This Bed is Getting Crowded" to the tenderhearted "Fall Apart With You", the new CD is as varied as it is tight, the latter courtesy of Escovedo's backing band The Sensitive Boys.  Whether playing snug garage band anthems or achingly crooning over a bed of strings, Escovedo finds the sweet spot, the one between your heart and your gut that can release gallons of adrenaline, or bleed out from heartache.

Other standouts include the title track, "Undesired", an electric version of "Shelling Rain", and a ramped-up anthem called "Faith", on which Alejandro shares vocals and guitar licks with a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer who has made his living singing about faith, doubt, and hope.  The latter has instilled me with faith for 25 years...and Escovedo gives me faith for the future of the American musical landscape.  "Street Songs of Love" is this summer's sonic scripture on which I stand.

"American Slang" - The Gaslight Anthem   The buzz around this new CD is off the charts, and with reason.  Fans of everyone from Springsteen to The Clash, The Dropkick Murphys to The Hold Steady hear a familiar sound in these Jersey boys, and you can see the sparks coming off their fingers and tongues when they perform.  This is bottled lightning, all wrapped up in the same kind of joyful abandon an Asbury Park kid had playing the Stone Pony back in the early 70's.

Their third release, "American Slang" is alive with energy, but also has the focus of a band ready to bust through.  Lead singer Brian Fallon's voice is just ragged enough to sound tattered by the streets, yet light enough to carry tunes like "The Diamond Church Street Choir" and "The Queen of Lower Chelsea" to their appropriate, joyous peaks.  Tough as leather, yet catchy as hell.  It's music that insists on driving at 90 miles an hour, gathering up every world-weary and wide-eyed character it meets along the way to become a part of the stories woven into songs like "Old Haunts" and "Boxer".

Download "Bring it On" or "Stay Lucky" and if your pace doesn't quicken with delight on your morning walk, or your foot doesn't get a bit heavier on the accelerator on your weekend cruise, I'll give you your money back, no questions asked.

"Women and Country" - Jakob Dylan -  Maybe this notion of Velvet Underground and Clash-influenced artists isn't your cup of tea.  Maybe you'd like to just slow it down and listen to someone who is easy on the ears, and knows a thing or two about rhyming couplets as Zen koans.   With a voice as warm as Jack Johnson's and a bit of his dad's gift for layering mystery into lyrics, Jakob Dylan may be your man.

I could never figure out why The Wallflowers went the way of so many 90's bands - a couple of hits, then disappointing follow-ups, the cobbled together 'Greatest Hits' swan song, and then obscurity.  But, between their 'oh, are they still together?' releases, Jakob Dylan has wandered off and created two terrific solo albums.  This second one is a generous serving of Americana pie.  T-Bone Burnett produces, which is always a good thing.  Neko Case rides along to provide harmony on a number of tracks, adding sweet lilt to Dylan's soft, plaintive voice.  But front and center is some smart, mature songwriting, laid back vocals, and an artist who sounds quite comfortable in his own skin, even acknowledging in one tune that he doesn't desire to 'fill anyone's boots'.  Dad likely couldn't agree more.

That's not to say Dylan doesn't tip his hat to some influences along the way.  "Nothing But the Whole Wide World" kicks the CD off with the kind of bittersweet hope is dad is capable of when the mood strikes him, and from there,  Jakob travels through Tom Waits country ("Lend a Hand"), a touch of James Taylor ("Yonder Come the Blues"), and even a bit of Randy Newman slips in ("They've Trapped Us Boys").   By the closing number, "Standing Eight Count", it's pretty evident that Jakob Dylan is no wallflower.  In fact, going solo may be just the renaissance he needed.

So, if you're finding the summer to be high on heat but low on sonic fuel, I'd recommend one of these three artists - a little something for everyone - and proof that the good stuff is out there.